Die-Trapp Familie (1956)

Over the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve seen many films that were remakes of others—and, like pretty much every homage that’s paid to an existing work, there’s no telling what the remake will be like in comparison to the original, even when the budget, the cast and the crew of the remake would appear to make it have all the odds stacked in its favour.

Too many remakes (Ben Hur is an especially grotty example) are an embarrassing example of someone setting out to remake a landmark blockbuster, and ending up creating something utterly forgettable. At the other other end of the spectrum are films that take an established classic, make a very good version of it, but are rarely remembered—The Outrage, an exceptionally faithful copy of Kurosawa’s famous Rashōmon—is one example. There are those, like The Talented Mr Ripley (a remake of Plein Soleil), Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (a remake of Twelve Angry Men), and The Magnificent Seven (originally, Seven Samurai) which are, to some extent or the other, well-loved and accomplished works in both versions.

And there is this, an instance of a good film which few people seem to know of (at least, few English-speaking, Hollywood-watching people), but the remake of which became such a cult classic that even now, more than five decades later, little children (my daughter included) are taught songs from it in school, and the city where it was set—Salzburg—has, as some of its prime tourist attractions, the places where it was shot.

Yes, the Julie Andrews-Christopher Plummer The Sound of Music is possibly one of the most popular musicals ever made by Hollywood (I certainly count it among my favourite musicals). But, nearly a decade before The Sound of Music was released, a West German film had been made based on the memoirs of Maria von Trapp, in which she wrote of the history of the ‘Trapp Family Singers’. Of how the von Trapps escaped Austria when World War II broke out and came to America; how they used their considerable musical talent to not just earn their living but become hugely successful as well.

Die-Trapp Familie (The Trapp Family) was released in 1956, and was so successful that two years later, a sequel, Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika (The Trapp Family in America) was released, focussing on the family’s attempts to break into the entertainment scene in the USA.  Some time later, an English-dubbed version of Die-Trapp Familie was released, with some bits added on from Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika. You can watch this film here. However, the original Die-Trapp Familie, can be watched starting here, with English subtitles.

If you’ve watched The Sound of Music, the story is pretty similar for about the first two-thirds of the film. Maria (Ruth Leuwerik) is a novice nun at a convent, where she helps teach little children. But Maria is hardly a paragon herself: she does all the things a nun isn’t supposed to do, like whistling, going sliding down balustrades, pinching apples from pantries, and so on.

But one day, Maria is told that she’s being sent off to act as governess to the children of the widower and former Naval officer, Baron von Trapp. Only for a month, she’s assured, when Maria blurts out her reluctance to do any such thing. After a month, Maria can return.

Maria, therefore , turns up (dressed in odds and ends that are hunted up for her, since her clothes were all given away when she joined the convent), at the von Trapp villa. The Baron (Hans Holt) is gracious and friendly, but Maria gets a shock when she sees how regimented are the lives of his seven children, down to the youngest. They dress in sailor suits, they march about in strict order, not a hair is out of place, and they look rather like a little battalion of soldiers than a group of children.

Maria is appalled. The housekeeper, to whom the Baron hands over Maria—both to show Maria to her room, and to make sure that new dresses are stitched for Maria, at once—soon gets chatty. Oh, yes, she says in answer to Maria’s query about why the Baron hasn’t remarried: yes, there may well be a wedding in the offing. There’s the Princess Yvonne (Maria Holst), whom the Baron seems to be very interested in—and vice-versa. Maybe, now that Maria is here to look after the children, the Baron will be able to devote more time to the Princess.

This is borne out by the Baron himself that evening at dinner, when he announces to his children and Maria that he’s off the next day to visit Princess Yvonne.

The Baron is gone a few days, and as soon as he’s gone, Maria takes matters into her own hands vis-à-vis the children. She decides they need more child-friendly clothing, and goes to the seamstress’s room where her own dresses are being tailored. Here, much to the shock of the seamstress (who knows the Baron all too well), Maria insists that new clothes be made from the children at once—and, if there’s no other cloth, these curtains will do just fine.

She takes the children out playing, and they enjoy themselves thoroughly. One night, there’s a terrible thunderstorm, and all the children are so scared that they come to Maria’s room, and she helps them relax by getting out her guitar and singing to them—and getting them singing too. And how well the von Trapps sing, she realizes!

The day the Baron returns, it’s to find his children playing submarines. The elder six are ‘diving’ in a huge crate while the youngest, Martina, turns the water hose full on them. Oh, what fun.

Not for the Baron, who gets a dose of that hose full in the face. A flustered Maria is able to whisk the children away. When an infuriated Baron, having changed into dry clothing and now ready to give Maria a piece of his mind, comes searching for her, he finds her sitting with the children, all of them singing. The sight and the sound of their music affects him to the extent that he leaves his ire all unvented, even forgets it.

Christmas comes, and in all the festivities—decorating the tree, putting up ornaments, exulting over gifts—the Baron and Maria grow more friendly and appreciative of each other. You can see the beginnings of a mutual affection and ease here.

An affection that is quickly noticed by the Princess, who’s arrived for a visit, along with several other friends of the Baron’s, including a banker named Rudy Gruber (Friedrich Domin). In honour of all these people, the children and Maria stage a delightful little bit of shadow-theatre, which is much appreciated.

The one person who has been noticing the dynamics between the two adults most important to the children—their father and their governess—is the Princess. A canny woman, and one not above looking out for her own interests, she decides to nip in the bud what she perceives as a budding romance.

Of course (even if you haven’t seen The Sound of Music), you could guess what happens next, but there’s more to this—and more, too, than what was shown in The Sound of Music. Because Die-Trapp Familie is truer to the actual history of the von Trapps than was the much-glamourized version of the Broadway musical that was the hugely popular The Sound of Music.

 

More on that, later on.

What I liked about this film:

I liked the leads of this film a lot: Ruth Leuwerik and Hans Holt are great to watch, and there’s a warmth, a genuine affection and level of comfort with each other that comes through in the characters they portray.

 

The music—much of it choral, a waltz, some folk music, even the famous Brahms Lullaby—is absolutely lovely.

Plus, one particular scene especially touched me: near the end, in the waiting room where all the aspiring immigrants are gathered. Poignant, and though obviously designed to be sentimental, effective.

What I didn’t like:

The script is overall a good one, though there are portions where it wobbles and one wonders if an incident or element had been included simply because it was part of the original story of the von Trapps. For me, one such incident that jarred was when Maria eggs Georg on to turn the von Trapp family home into a hotel. I can see why that should have been done, and I can see how it could have helped reinforce the fact that the von Trapps were in dire financial straits, but the hotel angle is so fleeting that it barely registers before it’s gone.

Comparisons, comparisons:

Comparing Die-Trapp Familie to The Sound of Music is not an easy business, even though the films are based on the same story (and even though The Sound of Music, though it doesn’t mention Die-Trapp Familie, obviously draws on certain core elements of it).

First of all, Die-Trapp Familie is far more low-key. The Sound of Music, with its huge budget, can afford the grand interiors and exteriors, the fabulous effects, the superb props, etc, of a film that’s Hollywood at its opulent best.

Secondly, the German film is more real, more true to life (though, given that the von Trapps, and Maria in particular, lived such interesting lives, that is perhaps not the mot juste). For instance, Baron von Trapp may whistle for his children and may dress them up in sailor suits, but he’s also a kind father, not unapproachable at all, and generally a nice man (though I love Christopher Plummer’s von Trapp equally, so forbiddingly aloof though he seems at first). And the children, far from being the little hooligans they are initially in The Sound of Music, are normal, if somewhat subdued and even rather forgettable.

As another example, barring a couple of songs—the one that Maria sings, for example, when the children come into her room during the storm—all the songs are sung in a situation that would normally involve a song: children practising their music with a teacher, a group performing at a concert, a group auditioning, and so on. (Also, unlike the Hollywood version, where Maria is the one who trains the children up from scratch, this film uses the actual story—a priest named Dr Wasner [played here by Josef Meinrad] heard the Trapps singing and took them under his wing to train them, even finally going to America with them).

The Sound of Music, on the other hand, has most of its songs being impromptu ones, people suddenly bursting into song. The nuns, singing Maria, Maria singing about confidence, Rolf and Liesl serenading their youth and their mutual attraction…

Thirdly, there’s the closeness to the original story. No, I will not claim to have read Maria von Trapp’s book, but from what I gather, there’s more similarity between the book and Die-Trapp Familie than there is between it and The Sound of Music. The romance that is so critical a part of The Sound of Music—and which is played out through scenes like the one by the lake, the Ländler that Maria and von Trapp dance at the ball, and of course the glasshouse scene—is much, much underplayed in Die-Trapp Familie. There is some attraction, yes, but it’s really not a romantic film: the love between Maria and Georg is seen more vividly after they’re married, and in scenes that are not about their love, but about other things in life: finances, politics, the looming war, and so on.

(This, I must point out, is probably closer to the truth than the starlight and Something good of The Sound of Music. Maria von Trapp, in an interview years later, admitted that she fell in love with the von Trapp children, not their father. When he proposed to her and she went to the convent to ask for guidance, she was advised to marry him—which she did, though she didn’t love him at the time).

Lastly, and this is where I think The Sound of Music most shows its Broadway and Hollywood lineage: there’s everything that makes it attractive, glamorous, thrilling, pure entertainment. The Rolf-Liesl romance and Rolf’s betrayal (and Liesl’s coming of age); the Baroness’s eventual gracious surrender (which said, I must admit that I adore Eleanor Parker as the Baroness); the adventurous, edge-of-the-seat escape from Nazi-ruled Austria: all of that is missing from Die-Trapp Familie.

I had dithered over whether I should watch Die-Trapp Familie or not. I have been a fan of The Sound of Music ever since I first watched it, and I didn’t want to mar that love for a particular story by watching a version I may not like. I am happy to say that Die-Trapp Familie was a film I ended up liking a lot. It’s very different from The Sound of Music in the second half, and even overall, the feel differs—but it’s still a wonderful little film. Not as glitzy and pretty a spectacle as The Sound of Music, but certainly worthy of the (uncredited) tributes The Sound of Music pays it, in details like the Baron’s whistle, certain dialogues, the farewell song, and so on.

I still love The Sound of Music more—it’s funnier, more visually pleasing, the songs are a delight (and so memorable in all ways, down to the picturization), and the relationship between Maria and the children is much sweeter, deeper, and better thought-out (overall, too, the children play a much larger, and much more interesting part in The Sound of Music—they are there, but their characters aren’t as clearly etched or memorable, in Die-Trapp Familie). Plus, the chemistry between Andrews’s high-spirited and effervescent Maria and Plummer’s strict disciplinarian is the stuff of melt-in-a-puddle romance.

But Die-Trappe Familie is a very worthy precursor. If you like The Sound of Music, do give this a try, too.

16 thoughts on “Die-Trapp Familie (1956)

  1. Sounds delicious … Ah, but it is Monday morning… so a long wait before once can bite into this :(
    Thanks for the review and for uncovering this gem…

  2. “The Sound of Music” is on my shortlist of films marked “only to be watched post-mortem” (along with “Titanic”, and the alleged Star Wars prequels). Just the thought of trying to wade through “The Hills Are alive with Singing Nazis” makes me break out in a cold sweat. On the other hand “more low-key”, “more real” “more true-to-life” are music (ha!) to my ears. Thank you so much for alerting me to this, I may finally get watch the story of die Trapp Familie after all, and as a bonus, get to revive my very, VERY rusty German.

    • While I agree that it’s better to watch something that’s more true to life, please don’t dismiss The Sound of Music without watching it at least once. I admit being tempted to fast-forward some of the songs, but the film is – for me, at least – a guilty pleasure. Not as much for the songs but for the humour (the lead actor, for one, gets some really plum lines!). Christopher Plummer, in fact, is one of the major reasons why you should watch the film. Not even if you’re really not interested in how he looks (I’ll admit that’s a big reason for me), but because of how he plays von Trapp. Julie Andrews later told him that his portrayal of the captain was what saved the film from sinking into a morass of sentimentality.

      But even if you don’t – well, we’ll agree to disagree. :-)

  3. I just scanned through your post, I did come across this film but lack of time as usual prevents me from going any further than giving it a cursory glance. Long ago I did do a bit of a research on the actual life of the Die Trapp family – there are several documentaries on you tube. While in the film Maria is this loving lady, in real life she was not that sweet, her step children according to what I found on the internet were quite fed up, She was very keen on the the group not breaking up and therefore one of the daughters had to run away in order to get married. There are several interviews both with her step children as well as her own children. The film (Sound of Music) ends with the family fleeing their home but in real life the couple did have children I think they had two children. I saw these videos long ago.

    • Yes, I believe so. I read somewhere that the real Maria was also prone to very bad fits of temper. Didn’t know about her daughter ending up having to run away to get married. How sad.

      I believe they had three other children, besides the seven he originally had with his first wife. Incidentally, in real life, Maria was brought in not as a governess for all seven children, but to look after one of the girls who had fallen ill.

      • Dear Madhulika,

        This is what happens when one comes in late on the scene. You find that someone or the other has already made the comments that you wanted to make :-) No matter and thank you for selecting this Subject, which has made a deep impression on all of us, young and….not so young.

        Maybe, there IS one point that I can mention. When the Film was released, an angry Maria von Trappe confronted Robert Wise, the Director of SOM, and accused him of tampering with Geography. If you look at a Map of Austria, there is no way you can cross the Alps and go to Switzerland. The only Country you go from Austria over the Alps is GERMANY and that is the last place the Family wanted to go to. In the event, they informed everyone that they were going on a Concert Tour, crossed the Railway Tracks that ran right behind their house and took a Train to Italy, from where they went to London and boarded a Steamer to New York. But Robert Wise had the last word. He is believed to said, Maam if we can change a bit of History we can certainly play about with Geography as well.

        Here is a clip of the two Marias (reel and real) together :

        With warm regards

        PARTHA CHANDA

        • Thank you for that comment and for the video, Parthaji! Yes, it would be impossible to cross over into Switzerland from Austria. I did know about the von Trapps having made their way to Italy first and then further, but hadn’t realized that it was done using the pretext of a concert tour.

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