The Sound of Music is a beloved American Classic. The story of a single white woman getting a great job: this is the first great girlboss film of the 20th century. I want to talk about the politics of the film, how they relate to our current situation, and just look a little closer at some of the things I love most about the movie.
The Captain embodies what the film considers to be benevolent nationalism. He’s a war “hero” who helped put down the Boxer Rebellion, a war fought by Chinese peasant anti-imperialists against foreign influence. He proudly exclaims, “I am an Austrian—I will not be heiled.” But his revolutionary zeal is turned into pacifist internationalism thanks to Maria’s help. With her influence, he turns “Edelweiss”—a pithy nationalist ditty—into a radical protest song.
The significance of that moment can not be understated, as it speaks to the creators’ unspoken political philosophy that unifies the whole project sublimely: music is a politically unifying and perhaps moderating force (the many pro-social lessons we learn from songs in the movie) for benevolent nationalism. Ultimately the internationalist turn leads the family to leave the country and travel the continent, which casts “Edelweiss” into another, funereal light—perhaps lamenting the failure of benevolent nationalism as a coherent political ideology.
But the nation is their home, after all. So we’re left to grieve the loss of their home. The Sound of Music suggests to me that we must find our home elsewhere. That we must understand that we are from here, all of us, and our home is this whole place. If we must leave our home, we’re only moving to a different part of our home. This politic defies borders, and has broad implications, especially for today’s world of constant (global warming instigated) migration.
The film seems to say that authoritarianism—in the house, in the workplace (the nunnery), and ultimately in the nation—is the death of something sacred, something indescribable. Maybe the closest thing we get to it is a flibbertigibbet. You can’t, and shouldn’t, control flibbertigibbets.
Ultimately though, there are two kinds of nationalism presented: one good (Austrian), and one bad (German).
The nature of American white supremacy and Black nationalism as types of revolutionary nationalism comes a little more clearly into relief when examining the beginning of our country. After the British began offering slaves freedom to fight for them in November of 1775, over a thousand slaves escaped to offer their arms. In 1778, Rhode Island started allowing slaves to join the army in exchange for freedom, and all the northern states followed (The Slave’s Cause, Manisha Sinha). As Sinha describes, “it was the slaves who attempted to make the Revolutionary War into an abolition war.”
Over 20,000 slaves escaped to British lines over the War, leading Gary Nash to describe it as the “largest unknown slave rebellion in American history.” Black Loyalists far outnumbered black people who fought with the Americans, but black people fought on both sides, often employing the slogan, “liberty.” (The Slave’s Cause).
When America won the war against the British, slavery was reinstated, and many promises were reneged on in favor of protecting slaveholders’ rights. This lit a fire under the abolitionist movement, which saw open contradictions in a Declaration of Independence claiming, “all men are created equal,” in a country enslaving masses of people.
So, there were in effect two revolutions, or two interpretations to the same revolution drawn over the fundamental issue of who a man was. Both revolutions sanctified and ratified the rights of Man, the only question was who qualified as a Man. On one side, “Man” meant White Men, and on the other, it meant All People. Ultimately property rights protected slaveholders, and the three-fifths clause and fugitive slave clause further institutionalized white supremacy. One side can be described as white supremacist and the other as abolitionist (though abolitionism preceded the creation of the United States).
But both sides, having succeeded in their revolution, had violent force as, if not determinisms, certainly as a priori within their epistemology. One side used violence to ideologically liberate, and one side used violence to control. John Brown, Harriet Tubman (who was a general), and Nat Turner are just a few examples on the abolitionist side, and on the other side you have the many white violent riots, thousands of lynchings, and so on—most often in response to presumed Black Power or what they might call “insanity.”
Revolutionary nationalism, in its modern incarnation extending from abolition, is Black nationalism, most identified with the Black Panther Party, whose members sometimes argued for the creation of a separate state or relocation.
The type of leadership that organized violence requires is generally authoritarian in design. In The Sound of Music, we see the transformation of Rolf from hallway monitor to full-blown Nazi-wannabe. In The Struggling State, Jennifer Riggan describes the elements of revolutionary nationalism in Eritrea that, “forge a particular sense of personhood…willing to sacrifice (and kill and die, if need be) to not only defend their nation but also develop it.” Rolf embodies this type of personhood; even though he ultimately fails to kill the Captain, he is on the conveyor belt of nationalism that ends in violence.
Maria, who rebels against authoritarianism, is described by the nuns as a demon, a pest, and a headache, in thinly veiled allusions to the language the Nazis use. The nuns can’t find a solution to Maria, though the Nazis will have their own ideas later in the movie.
Maria, though described as a clown, is able to use humor to come out on top in any situation. She respects the autonomy of all persons, including children. She demands that all people be respected exactly as they are, and is able to meet all of the children at their levels to support them in the ways they need; from Liesl’s failed romance with a Nazi simp, to comforting the kids in a thunderstorm. She uses non-authoritarian models of education to engage the kids on inescapably fun levels while teaching them skills like mindfulness, confidence, and music.
By the end of the story arc, Maria is seen to embody a pacifist internationalist approach to the world. She is the mastermind behind deconstructing the Captain’s authoritarian worldview, which she does with healthy conflict and showing-not-telling. Her forming them into the traveling musical group is what allowed them to escape Austria in the film—and in real life, where they supposedly took a train to Italy instead of scaling the Alps.
I’m not sold that pacifist internationalism is the answer to all our problems, after all, the Nazis were defeated with violence, but The Sound of Music is a beautiful clarion call for a different approach to conflict: more peaceful, perhaps ceding ground at times, putting children’s well-being first, and using music to moderate the tendencies of mass organized movements.