Adventure · Western

A Word About Fräulein Maria

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The pre-Hollywood Captain von Trapp and Fräulein Maria. Image: br.de

Nine years before Hollywood unleashed the world’s greatest schmaltz-fest known as The Sound of Music, German filmmakers released a biopic of the famous von Trapp family.

Die Trapp-Familie (1956) is a more down-to-earth telling of the Fräulein-Maria-vs.-the-von-Trapps story. It set the basic template for the later Hollywood version, although neither film is an exact re-telling of actual events. (One could argue the German version is a smidge more factual.)

If you’re not familiar with the movie version of this story, it is set in Austria in the mid 1920s. (The Hollywood version takes place on the eve of the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.) A young woman named Maria (Ruth Leuwerik) is a happy, non-conformist novitiate living in a Salzburg convent, when she is suddenly dispatched to work as a governess to seven children. The children have a history of making their governesses quit; they’ve gone through a remarkable 26 governesses in only four years.

Although Fräulein Maria is charming, she is also one hard-boiled egg. Not only does she win the children’s affections, she discovers their widowed father (Hans Holt) has fallen in love with her.

There are several differences between the German and Hollywood films. In Die Trapp-Familie, Maria is already a teacher at the convent, so her new job as governess is a logical choice. She also uses religious language; for example, she often says “God’s greetings” when meeting people.

The German version touches on von Trapp’s loss of wealth during the Depression and the family’s difficulties in emigrating to America, developments left untouched by the Hollywood version.

A notable difference between the two films is the treatment of Nazi occupation. In the German version, filmmakers carefully tiptoe around the subject, which was likely still a raw topic with German audiences. Hollywood, on the other hand, torques the Nazi occupation to expertly amp the film’s tension.

Of all the differences between the two films, the most striking is language.

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Maria and the children wow ’em in concert. Image: YouTube

It’s weird to see this familiar Hollywood story told in German, which is strange in itself because German would have been the family’s mother tongue. By contrast, the Hollywood version uses such over-the-top British enunciation, it has to continually remind you these people are Austrian.

The German film allows us glimpses into the zeitgeist of post-war Germany. In one scene, von Trapp is told by a well-meaning friend, “A little unhappiness in childhood is the best preparation for life.”

The version we watched also had flawless translation that explained the script’s cultural references that may not be familiar to English audiences. For example, early in the film Maria asks her class for examples of words starting with the letter “D”. Some of the children give words that the translation politely describes as “expression[s] of anger”, which not entirely appreciated by the religious Maria.

We were so impressed by this translation, and the care that went into it, we asked our friends at Smartling (developers of translation software) about the business of cinematic translation. Their own blog explains the challenges of translating for the cinema, including using minimal text and ensuring no more than two lines appear at the bottom of the screen at any given time.

We feel Die Trapp-Familie is an excellent example of translation that pulls the viewer into the film, even if it does sidestep some difficult history. (Incidentally, this film was so successful, a sequel was made two years later: Die Trapp Familie in Amerika.)

If you are interested in the von Trapp story but want a more authentic-feeling film, then you’ll enjoy Die Trapp-Familie.

Die Trapp-Familie: starring Ruth LeuwerikHans HoltMaria Holst. Directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner. Written by George Hurdalek and Herbert Reinecker. Divina-Film, 1956, Colour, 106 mins.

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12 thoughts on “A Word About Fräulein Maria

  1. I had no idea this film even existed! This has always been one of our favorite films (the hollywood version) as a family. I would love to see this! I’m going to have to find it and watch it with my sister. So interesting how the different countries making the film changes elements of it to fit with the story they want presented. I appreciate you comparing the two. So intestesting how they translate the films, too. Thanks for the heads up about this film, Ruth!

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    1. It would be interesting to see what you think about the original. There are a lot of similarities in costumes & locations – the Hollywood version being much more lavish, of course. But the actress who plays Maria in the original is even more charming than Julie Andrews, as hard as that may be to believe.

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  2. I knew about this film, but I have never seen it. I have always pondered if I would like it better than The Sound of Music.

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    1. Your comment made me laugh. I actually dragged someone to The Sound of Music on the big screen a few weeks ago, because I thought a larger format would make it better…

      Well, it was worth a try.

      However, I did come away with a greater appreciation for the costume design, especially for Baroness von Schrader’s sleek 1930s-style wardrobe.

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      1. I am an aficionado of film musicals (because of course I am), and I have never been able to get behind this one. It’s just so bloody boring and overdone. ‘My Favorite Things’ actually makes me want to scream with rage. Oh, how I hate that stupid song. Most people look at me like I have two heads when I say I loathe this film. Of course, these are usually the same people who have seen maybe 3 or 4 musicals, ever, so I don’t care. Sounds snobby, but, oh well! There are just so many fantastic film musicals, and, in my opinion, this is not one of them.

        Bonus points to you for giving it a chance on the big screen, though. Uh, no thanks on my end. Never gonna happen. The costumes are spectacular, I agree.

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