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’s 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 the Hollywood version avoided.
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.
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 curse, which the translation politely describes as “expression[s] of anger”. These expressions are not fully 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 Leuwerik, Hans Holt, Maria Holst. Directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner. Written by George Hurdalek and Herbert Reinecker. Divina-Film, 1956, Colour, 106 mins.