The most enduring memory I have of Nazism comes from The Sound of Music. It wasn’t the functionary who tried to bully Captain von Trapp that I remember. Nor is it the faceless guards that chase Maria and her family through the Abbey. It’s Rolf. Bland, seventeen-year-old Rolf who danced with Liesl and kissed her. Relatively powerless Rolf who chose to side with a group he felt would empower him.
As with My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music was one of the films my father acquired when he got a VCR. We showed it to visitors regularly and watched it several times, more often than we watched My Fair Lady. The nuns in habits were instantly recognizable to our rural visitors; a large part of the Kenyan encounter with colonialism had involved struggles between competing religious groups. The scramble for Africa had divided the continent into administrative sections, but religious scrambles took place within those sections, producing religious zone of influence: Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, Seventh Day Adventist, Methodist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the various subdivisions within those groups.
Nuns in habits were at the frontline of these struggles, dedicated to transforming uncivilized African women by training them into the domestic arts. Something about Julie Andrews also translated well: her mobile face, her infectious enthusiasm, her delight, her melancholy. You didn’t have to know the words she was singing—or saying—to be enthralled.
I vaguely remember watching a staged production at Loreto Convent Msongari, one of the prime leafy suburb schools, but little of the experience remains, and certainly not enough to speculate about how the students there and those watching them experienced the musical.
As training for thinking about Nazism, The Sound of Music fails spectacularly. Nazism is a dapper boyfriend who ghosts, a first kiss that never becomes a second, the boy who once threw pebbles at your window to attract your attention who no longer shows up. While the film shows loss—the von Trapps leave Austria, losing their home and possessions and social standing—the final trek through the Alps that closes the film is drenched in the romance of manifest destiny: if they are leaving their home, the world opens to them, a green terra nullius.
At the end of the film, Mother Superior’s song, “Climb Every Mountain,” expands from the romantic injunction it had been—that Maria should not ignore her feelings for the Captain, and should follow her destiny—into a too-literal description of the journey into exile. Yet, “expands” is not quite correct, because the feeling remains that suffuses the song: pursue your romantic dream. Exile is analogized to pursuing a romantic dream, and we, the viewers, are not permitted to imagine the pain of exile. We are to celebrate the romance of new opportunities. The von Trapp family are not fleeing brutal repression; they are pursuing their romantic dreams.
Unlike some students in the U.S., we who went through Kenya’s public education system never read The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. I suspect we learned about Nazism in some unit or other, but it was buried under everything else we had to learn: how to castrate a bull, the three arms of government, Kenya’s cash crops, and how to sycophant for the Dictator Moi. Were I more generous, I would claim that those who wrote our textbooks saw no need to distinguish between one imperial force—the Germans—and the others—the British, the French, the Italians, the Belgians, the Arabs.
When I moved to the U.S. for school in 1995, I discovered that The Sound of Music was an annual holiday film, shown every Christmas holiday season. I’m not sure how a film about escaping Nazis become a holiday favorite. Beyond the power of Disney marketing, were we supposed to create an analogy between Jesus and his family fleeing Herod and the von Trapps fleeing the Nazis? Maybe the holiday spirit urges us to celebrate romance and sentimentality—a young novitiate choosing a handsome, wealthy captain over her vows to the convent, a musical family escaping forces who would have silenced them, or, worse, stolen their voices to support evil. We want the holiday season to be about good feelings.
It has been several decades since I first encountered The Sound of Music. In that time, I have learned about the Shoah: images of camps and survivors are seared onto my mind, as are the words and voices of poets and historians, memoirists and documentarians. The testimony has felt unbearable, the silences impossible. Several times, I’ve had to stop watching and reading and listening and experiencing to catch my breath, to find the grit that witness demands.
Now, I contrast that search for grit with the ease with which I watched The Sound of Music. It was, after all, the musical that taught even the non-musical to sing a scale. My Favorite Things provided a strategy for dealing with situations that felt impossible. And when Maria and the captain get together, even the romance cynics among us release a little sigh.
Yet, I wonder about The Sound of Music as a holiday season film. If it is the most widely available representation of encounters with Nazism, what does it do for Nazism? Rolf, after all, is seductive, whether or not you like blond Austrians. He shapes desires: many of us would be lying if we claimed that, at sixteen, we didn’t want romantic promises, even dances in rainstorms. He seduces and ghosts, and it’s difficult not to feel that the problem with Rolf is that he turned out to be a bad would-be boyfriend.
Is Nazism nothing more than a bad would-have-been boyfriend?
And yet I’m not breaking up with The Sound of Music. I’m not sure I’d even know how. It’s so deeply embedded within how I experience myself and the world. It was so often the background to so many scenes of collective joy. I fear trying to discard it, that it might would rob those memories of their sound, and memories without soundtracks are simply weird.