‘Edelweiss’: An American Song for Global Dystopia

It’s not an Austrian folk tune. The theme from both The Sound of Music and The Man in the High Castle celebrates a very modern thing: political dissent.


The Man in the High Castle tells the story of an America that is no longer, in the traditional sense, American. It’s set in a place that emerged from an Axis victory in World War II, with the area run in the east by the Nazi Reich and in the west by Japan. The show in this universe—its many dramas playing out in 1962, after a generation of Axis rule—focuses on the small band of insurgents who rebel against the police state that the former United States has become. It’s an alternate history that does what all good alternate histories will do: It offers lessons about the history the show’s viewers are actually living.

The tone for The Man in the High Castle—the irony of it all, the violence of it all, the sepia-washed eeriness of it all—is set, for each of its 10 episodes, by its title sequence. Which goes like this: A film reel crackles and whirs. Guitar strings strum, plaintively. The words refuse to wait for a proper introduction. “Edelweiss, edelweiss ...”

The Man in the High Castle’s theme song, which is of course a version of another show’s theme song, is haunting both because of and despite its familiarity. Here is the iconic tune from The Sound of Music—a love song to a person, a love song to a country, a love song to all that is swept up in the phrase “way of life”—transformed into an anthem of dystopia. Here is a story about the tyrannies of fascism, set to a song that is known—or, at least, that has been known—for being soft and lush and lullaby-like. Here is a song of freedom, transformed into one of despair.
Which is all extremely effective as a (musical) rhetorical device. “Edelweiss,” here, is performed by the Swedish singer Jeanette Olsson, and her icy, sparse rendition infuses the song’s sibilants with an extra, telling hiss. Adding to the creepiness of the whole thing are the images that accompany the song: Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline … all of them, like the song, familiar and yet eerily changed.
But while the song is striking mostly because of its discordance, one way “Edelweiss” is at home in Amazon’s tale of victorious fascism is in its history: The song has never been the simple, waltz-like lullaby its lyrics would suggest it to be. It has always, in its way, insistently merged the personal and the political. And it has always functioned as a kind of elegy.
It’s a common misconception that “Edelweiss” is a classic Austrian folk song, selected for The Sound of Music to bring to the show an added dash of cultural authenticity. It is not. It was written for the musical in the late 1950s by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wanted to create a song for Captain von Trapp that would subtly convey his regret and his sadness and his pre-emptive nostalgia at having to leave Austria after the Nazi takeover. And since the actor playing von Trapp in the Broadway show, Theodore Bikel, was also an accomplished folk guitarist, the pair decided to write his elegy as if it were, indeed, a folk song.
For the lyrics of “Edelweiss,” Rodgers and Hammerstein focused on the German myths about the edelweiss flower, famed not only for its metaphor-friendly ability to withstand harsh Alpine winters but also for its symbolism of love’s triumphs: Suitors would climb the Alps to pick the flowers, giving them as gifts that proved both their prowess and their affection. The lyrics they wrote went, finally, like this:

Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Every morning you greet me
Small and white, clean and bright
You look happy to meet me.

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever.

In the High Castle version of the song, the initial second-person lines—“every morning you greet me”—have been jarringly removed. The small, human story, the “me,” has been replaced with something broader and arguably more epic. What we get instead are the descriptions of the white flower prized for its ability to blossom in the midst of snowy winters. What we get ultimately are adjectives that take on a new, chilling meaning in the context of the fascist regime that’s taken over America: “Small and white, clean and bright …”
And, then, we get one jarring “you”: The “you” that stands in for the “homeland” that will come at the end of the song. The “you” that insists that the “homeland” is something whose needs can be reasonably disentangled from those of the people who live within it.
Which is both striking and, given the song’s history, strangely appropriate. Rodgers and Hammerstein created “Edelweiss” with the intention that it would do double duty: It was to be a song of acquiescence—to family, to love, to the small satisfactions of stability—and also of resistance. It was both a symbol and an instrument of the Von Trapps’ fleeing of the Nazis—an embodiment of their belief that the “homeland” was something that could, like a flower that blooms in winter, survive the harshness of fascist rule. The original song, Playbill notes, “represented the indomitable spirit of the Austrians under Nazi control.” In The Man in the High Castle, it represents the American version of the same thing. “Edelweiss,” here, is a lullaby that is soothing precisely because it insists, against all odds, on staying awake.