The sight of the Sound of Music

Many of the films which everyone looks back on with fondness are parts of popular culture which have passed me by. So when we signed up for the Disney Plus streaming service – primarily for access to more modern t.v. series and films – I thought it was time to fill in some of the blanks.

One of the first blanks to be filled was the Sound of Music, which I watched for the first time a few weeks ago. Aside from the story – a familiar tale of a relentless and endearing bundle of energy warming a chilly home and chilly hearts – what struck me forcefully was the beauty of the cinematography. So much so, that I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts about the more striking scenes.

The main visual choice which appealed to me is that the film is shot in an anamorphic format: that’s to say, a wide, almost panoramic image in varied proportions between 2.35:1 and 2.20:1. As a keen fan of the panoramic image, this wider film crop makes the film much more enjoyable than similar films of the era which have been broadcast in a less wide format on television. (These days, usually 16:9.)

The usual 16:9 crop of a t.v. screen
The anamorphic 2.20:1 crop

This wider format isn’t just appealing in and of itself, but allowed the cinematographer Ted McCord – who was nominated for an Oscar for his work – to film many shots as if they were composed as landscape or posed stills. The performers aren’t just in the scene; they appear precisely to make the most of the “landscape” (or scene) into which they have been placed.

Once the scene was precisely composed in the camera, the subjects move within it in a way which is much more than simple performance. The fact that the film is a musical isn’t just apparent because of the performers, but also because of the way in which the precision of the visual composition and the precision of the camera tracking is part of the dance itself.

Some of the scenes are composed specifically in order to make the viewer understand an aspect of the story. When the nuns are entering the abbey and are, as yet, anonymous, the scene is dark and cold, with a slightly threatening use of a single red window. But when a smaller group discusses Maria, the light is warmer and shows that the nuns are more likely to be supportive of her, despite some misgivings.

The nuns are split on how to “deal with” Maria in this scene and once Maria has returned from gambolling around the mountainside, she has to visit the Mother Superior and explain herself. Because we don’t yet know the outcome of this conversation, Maria is shown to be alone in a large, dark hallway, which features a large religious motif dominating the environment. The size of the mural and the unnaturally large steps seem to have been specifically chosen in order to make Maria look even smaller; overwhelming her both emotionally and physically.

Once the kindly Mother Superior has acted out her maternal and guiding, forgiving role, it turns out that Maria is to take some time out and act as governess for a group of children whose mother has passed away. We’re introduced to Captain von Trapp as a strict and cold father, who is managing his children in the only way he knows how: as a military exercise. Even without hearing what he has to say, this is immediately obvious because of the sequence during which his children march in and then stand to attention. The precision of shots like this appeal to me greatly, both because of the perspective in the line which the children form, and also because of the accuracy of the composition. Note how the distance between Maria and the edge of frame, and the children on their side of the screen, are equal.

Once the Captain is out of the way, Maria sets about spending days of fun with the children; taking them out of the stuffy formality and out into the bright, colourful world which the children should be inhabiting. Having changed into less formal attire and making the children some “play clothes” to replace their “uniforms”, she closes the gate on the formality of the house and heads out into the exciting and natural world of Salzburg and the surrounding mountains. Where the sombre interior of the house and family life are fairly monochromatic – a mix of off-cream and greyish green – the city scenes are filled with colour, indicating a more fulfilled and joyful life.

Many of the shots in the film are composed very precisely, continuing the way in which the cinematographer places the camera and allows the performers to pass through the composition. Some shots are composed to show the beautiful surroundings; the Mozart Bridge is placed centrally in a way which Wes Anderson has since used in his films to such good effect. The train line to the mountains curves from the train itself upwards across the screen towards what’s to come. The party dances across the mountain meadows with their arms upraised in the freedom of the lush landscape; heading down the meadow to show effortless joy, and not upward indicating effort.

The dancing and singing continues apace, with Maria revelling in the sunshine which is breaking through the shadows in the same way she is breaking through the imposed formality of both her own and the children’s recent past. Her time with the children is bringing her such joy that even the statues seem to be joining in with the merriment. The sequences were filmed at the perfect time of day for each scene; the sun was overhead as the family dance through an arboreal tunnel, and at a high 45-degree angle where they pass the aforementioned statues.

Meanwhile, back at the von Trapp house, we see the Captain walking with Baroness Schraeder through the leafy formal gardens of his home. The simplicity and formality of the garden tell us that he isn’t especially interested in enjoying the outdoors; the lack of any real flowering plants make the garden simply tidy and respectable. We learn how much importance the Captain places on respectability when he is shocked at the children and Maria playing around in – and subsequently falling off – a boat.

The camera angle in the view below tells me that the cinematographer specifically wanted to compose the scene to allow the peak of the Untersberg mountain to fill the gap in the trees; an unusual but very photographic choice.

Throughout the film, the children appear as a group and special attention has been paid in each scene to ensure that they are all visible; in the frame below, we see them on the terrace. The camera often pans through a shot, following the children, and comes to rest in this kind of precise composition. If I were being pedantic, I’d say that the shot could’ve done with a fraction more space, so that Brigitta isn’t almost hidden. (It would’ve also been pleasing if the children had been equidistant, with the statue in the background taking a more balanced eighth place. But this might’ve been a little too contrived.)

The scene in which Maria and the Captain express their love is perfectly chosen; the meeting place between Maria’s natural outdoor life and the Captain’s formal lifestyle being portrayed by the gazebo. We’ve already been introduced to the gazebo as a place for love, as Liesl and her intended sweetheart meet here earlier in the film. The lighting is lovely, too, with fake moonlight beaming in from behind the couple; casting silhouettes and forming a semi-heart in the gap between them. Once again, we see the central positioning of the couple, showing that their love is at the centre of the story.

What we take to be the happy ending is the big wedding, filmed like a modern-day royal affair with long, high shots down the abbey’s aisle. But the most metaphoric scene is where Maria takes her leave from the nuns; exiting through a gate in a wrought trellis and watching as the Mother Superior closes the gate behind her. Maria leaves the nuns behind the barrier in what she had come to see as a trapped life, to be escorted into her future by the children.

We then see the approaching reign of the Nazis as soldiers march across the city square, dividing it diagonally under swastika banners and separating small groups of onlookers in a precursor of times to come. The family decide to leave but are stopped in a classic car-headlights-as-spotlights scene, where the main antagonist Gauleiter Hans Zeller asserts his authority in a theatrical but menacing way. Even the small detail of German instead of Austrian car number plates plays its own part in telling the story of times to come.

As we head towards the dramatic will-they-won’t-they get-away, the family is seen performing in almost darkness; spotlit and tiny in a wide-angle shot amongst deliberately dramatic surroundings; the family being visually isolated amongst an initially faceless audience. As they perform, and von Trapp stirs Austrian pride, we see that there are many people in the darkness who share his feelings as they join in with him in song; much to the misgivings of the Nazi officials in the front row. A clever visual choice to show the darkness encompassing everyone, but the resilience of their spirit and glimmers of light amongst the crowd despite the oppressive surroundings.

The family make their escape directly from the stage, and head for the abbey to seek assistance from the nuns in their escape. The tense scenes, filmed in near-darkness made to look convincingly like moonlight, were actually filmed on a sound stage in America, but were closely based on St. Peter’s cemetery in Salzburg. The darkness and the points of light, with the backdrop of the moonlit mountains, help to draw out the tension of the scene. We’re not sure whether the family will manage to escape or not; right to the moment when they do.

Cemetery scene in The Sound of Music

As the film comes to a close, we see the family trekking through the bright sunshine and beautiful mountains to the safety of Switzerland, their possessions left behind but still as a family unit. The Captain leads masterfully, carrying his youngest child as a sign that he has become a much warmer father, and Maria brings up the rear to continue keeping an eye on everyone. The cinematographer grabbed his last chance for some dramatic scenery and filmed their progress from a helicopter; one which was sadly a little too close, as we see the downdraft clearly blasting the mountainside and the family. But never mind; the family is together, and away from Nazi danger.

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