Our Obsession With “Feel-good” Confections

In 1965, many of us, or our parents, went to see their first Hollywood film, and it was “The Sound of Music”, a glossy, somewhat saccharine musical about how the Von Trapp family escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria. They adored this film so much that it probably did more than anything else to move the Christian Reformed Church to repeal its prohibition against the “worldly amusement” of cinema.

Now, if you are truly convinced that “The Sound of Music” is movie-making at its finest, nothing I can possibly say in the following paragraphs will move you from that opinion. I acknowledge the film’s technical merits. It is expensively filmed, beautifully staged, and the music is memorable and well-performed. Most people are aware of the conscious sentimentality, but don’t mind.

I’ve never liked “The Sound of Music” because I’ve always been uncomfortable with films that sentimentalize tragedy, and no tragedy was darker, or more compelling than the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Five to six million Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” were systematically exterminated by the Nazi regime. I do not deny that the Von Trapps have a story to tell, but I find it disconcerting to find them centre stage, in all their Aryan purity, in a film that barely acknowledges even the existence of the Jews. The world of the Von Trapps– white, rich Austrians– is pretty well the kind of world the Nazis envisioned, once they had carried out the final solution.

Consider the scene in which the father lines up the children with military precision, in perfect order from highest to smallest, to send them off to bed. Given the nature of Nazi Germany (and Austria), the Nazi’s obsessions with secondary racial characteristics and genetic purity, and Hitler’s passion for order and precision, this scene is either an obscene joke, or absolutely mindless film-making, completely at odds with its own subject. It deplores the Nazis as enemies of this nice Austrian family, while simultaneously inviting you to adore their physical grace, cleanliness, beauty, discipline, and racial purity. It has Dan Quayle’s “family values” in spades. Nobody swears or runs around indecently dressed or commits adultery. The children are obedient, the father is a powerful authority figure, and Maria, the on-again, off-again nun, is both pious and mischievous– an irresistible combination to many of us. In short, this film should offend nobody.

I was recently involved as an actor in a production of “Cabaret” by a local community Theatre group. (A movie version– which is not very similar to the stage version, but still interesting– was released several years ago and is readily available in video stores.) “Cabaret”, like “The Sound of Music”, is about individuals who come into conflict with the rising tide of Nazism. Both of them want you to know how awful the Nazis were. But it is the contrasts of these two works that is most illuminating.

The most obvious contrast is in outward style. Many Christians would not be comfortable attending a performance of “Cabaret”. Much of the action takes place inside the “Kit Kat Club”, a cabaret where prostitutes and dancing girls mingle with drunken sailors, homosexuals and libertines. The dancers gyrate and wiggle their rear-ends as an evil-grinned Emcee invites the audience to discard their inhibitions and forget all their problems. Characters cavort and carouse and explode into brawls.

Thus, the first contrast between these two productions, from Julie Andrew’s convent to Sally Bowles’ Kit Kat Klub, is shocking. In fact, Sally Bowles, the central character of “Cabaret”, makes her first appearance dressed as a nun, singing about her mother thinking she is living in a convent in the Southern part of France, instead of singing in a Berlin nightclub, “in a pair of lacy pants…” This is followed by a drunken brawl, the “kit kat girls” singing, stumbling, rolling over the floor on top of several bar patrons, and a song about picking someone up for casual sex, of various orientations.

The audience is initially fascinated—and repelled—so when a group of healthy, wholesome-looking, well-dressed men, women, and children come out into a “meadow” for a picnic and begin singing a charming German folk song, the audience’s first reaction is relief: finally, some normal, decent-looking people! The actors in this scene actually resemble, physically, the Von Trapp family as presented in “The Sound of Music”! The song is about nature, optimism and faith: “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. The audience is enraptured by the strength and sense of purpose expressed in the song, particularly in contrast to the brazen physical obscenity of the previous scenes.

A few scenes later, at a wedding, a similar group gathers to sing the same song. As they sing, a few Nazi arm-bands appear, then more, and more, until the entire chorus, stamping their feet and raising their arms in salute, have become a ferocious mob. Suddenly, the song is revealed for what, in fact, it has always been: a paean to Aryan purity and dominance. And a connection is drawn between the earlier “wholesome” ideal of beauty and racial purity, and the expansionist violence and viciousness of the Nazi regime. One realizes– maybe for the first time– that the Nazis did not recruit their members at gun point. They caught them in a web of high-minded visionary ideals and hopes and dreams, exploited the economic and moral collapse of post World War I Germany, and tapped into repressed but still potent nationalist instincts. “Cabaret” suggests that Nazism succeeded because it appealed to the same kind of emotions and ideas that most of us still share today.

“Cabaret” is not content with surfaces and pretty pictures. In fact, it draws a very unpretty picture of humanity, to reveal the corruption in the heart of German culture that gave rise to Nazi Germany, and the corruption within ourselves that could lead to the same consequences. Sally Bowles is so immersed in her own decadent, impulsive life-style that she is blind to the consequences of the political changes going on around her. “What does politics have to do with us?” she asks. The real Sally Bowles, upon whom the original story by Christopher Isherwood was based, died in a concentration camp.*

I was surprised by the number of Christians in the cast of “Cabaret”. I counted at least a dozen, many of whom arrived at Sunday rehearsals fresh from church or youth choir. We often talked about the meaning of the play, the significance of the moral debauchery in Germany in regard to the subsequent rise of Nazism, and the relevance of “Cabaret” to our own time and place. All of us were deeply committed to this production because it would remind the audience of the dangers of allowing a moral vacuum to exist in our society. All of us agreed that the vivid depiction of this moral collapse was necessary to make this point as real to the audience as possible.

The Christian community is frequently guilty of preferring bland entertainment like “The Sound of Music” to gutsy, authentic plays and films like “Cabaret”. Our community is notoriously fearful of the raw power of honest drama, strong language and images, and, sometimes, the power of truth. Is this a harmless matter of taste, or an important deficiency in Christian culture?

I have been thinking recently not only about the contrasts and comparisons between these films, but also about other incidents that resonate with these issues: a Christian Reformed Church sponsors a square dance; a Christian High School History teacher tells me he doesn’t have a television set in his house because all it shows is trash; a Christian High School English teacher shakes his head slowly as I ask if he is familiar with recent work by Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, or Gunter Grass. A Christian high school is incapable of finding a meaningful play to perform because the teachers fear that parents will be offended. We speak thousands and thousands of words about the errors of our culture, but we make little effort to speak the same language.

The future of the world may not depend on whether we prefer to watch “The Sound of Music” or “Cabaret”, but sometimes we must ask ourselves if our infatuation with feel-good confections, inoffensive literature and music, and “wholesome family values” is teaching us what we need to know about the dynamics of our own history and culture. When we, as parents, object to our children reading or performing plays that are contemporary and meaningful, are we condemning ourselves to even greater irrelevance? Does the world look for answers from people who object so strongly to the language of the streets that they never take the time to hear what the people of the streets are saying?

* Update, January 2004

Apparently the “real” Sally Bowles didn’t die in a concentration camp after all.  Her name was Jean Ross and she lived to a ripe old age in England.  She didn’t consider the portrait of herself in Isherwood’s story to be very flattering.

Copyright © 1998 Bill Van Dyk All rights reserved.