Eidelweiss isn’t actually the national anthem for Austria. I’m telling you so that you know that I know. I KNOW!
It’s on my list because it is a perfect example of the role of a national anthem, and the role of film in dramatising the concept.
Written specifically for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, The Sound of Music, the song is used twice in the film. It first appears as the vehicle by which Captain Von Trapp solidifies the reconnection with his children, becoming a father instead of a ‘captain’ to them. The widowed sea captain is stern and cold with his seven children, summoning them by whistle and ordering them to stand in line. In this scene, he has already begun to let down his emotional defences, but it is the singing of the song ‘Eidelweiss’ that breaks the spell.
As in Casablanca, the scene also illuminates various character arcs. Captain Von Trapp emotionally connects with his children, and they with him, through the act of singing together, which in turn is thanks to the new arrival in the Von Trapp household: the nun-turned-governess Maria. In this scene, it becomes clear that in the process of bringing music to the family, Maria has also fallen in love with the captain (and he too, might be falling for her).
A new development that is particularly evident to the captain’s existing love interest, Baroness Elsa.
The Baroness’s indifference both to the guitar playing and the earlier gift of an eidelweiss flower – a predicator of the meaning of the song –depicts her as an outsider, and so it is fitting that her understanding of her precarious position occurs during the singing of Eidelweiss. As a well-known symbol of Austria, the motif of eidelweiss – a wild, outdoors mountain flower – connects national identity to the intimate, interior sphere of home, and of course, to the unifying ‘sound of music’ in that home (the gift Maria has brought).
Nationality is thus rooted into the domestic, securing the father-child bonds but also setting up a wider potential for a family unit, a ‘homeland’ of people brought together by the meaning of ‘eidelweiss’.
The context of the song thus heightens the emotional impact of its second appearance, which occurs just after the news that Austria will ally with Germany, and that Captain Von Trapp must consequently fight as a Nazi. As a cover for their attempt to flee the country, the Von Trapp family – now an established unit inclusive of Maria as mother and wife – are performing at the Salzburg Festival. Eidelweiss is their finale.
Again like Casablanca, the song now appears as an emotive act of defiance that is bolstered by collective participation. First Maria joins the Captain in singing (as his voice cracks under the emotion), and then, finally, so do the Salzburg audience.
Eidelweiss – the song and the flower – represents a country that, in one way or another, everyone present must say farewell to, but will nevertheless remain as home in their hearts.