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Paul-Julien Robert’s documentary of his return to Friedrichshof, Otto Muehl’s free-loving commune, where Robert grew up with his mother
Paul-Julien Robert approaches the political through the personal in his documentary My Fathers, My Mother and Me. The story begins with his birth in 1979, a time when fall-out from the Second World War was still very present for many Austrians. But the film does not tackle the post-war Austrian psyche and instead reveals Robert’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s decision to raise him in a commune under the leadership of a megalomaniac leader, Otto Muehl.
In 1972 Muehl, co-founder of the Viennese Actionist Art movement, set up Friedrichshof with a handful of like-minded politicos and artists who espoused the destruction of the bourgeois nuclear family, the sharing of all property, free love, the collective education of children and the attainment of ecstasy through the destruction of “body armour” (an idea he took from Wilhelm Reich). All fairly noble aims, but from the archive footage Robert weaves throughout the film, we see the manifestation of these ideals as not so benign.
In one scene Muehl orders a withdrawn child to perform in front of hundreds of members of the commune. Muehl bullies him into playing a harmonica while a live band chivvy him along with bizarre jazzy circus music. The child begins to cry and Muehl barks at him to “Sing! Dance!” The child sobs. Eventually Muehl pours water over the boy while he dejectedly puffs into a mouth organ, tears streaming down his face.
Not only is this scene a devastating example of Muehl’s abuse of power, but it is made more resonant because we are watching it with Robert and his mother. In showing her this clip, Robert appears to be asking her “How could you have been complicit in this?” Throughout the film, Robert quietly levels questions at his mother, who takes them with equanimity and sometimes humour. She is likeable, intelligent but perhaps a bit distant. At this point in the film, her composure starts to crack and emotions begin to surface in her face. Robert, who felt abandoned, betrayed and confused as a child by his mother’s choice to raise him in Friedrichshof, is finally being heard.
The real story in some ways is the story of Robert’s mother, Florence. In 1975 as a woman of twenty-six, she was searching for a new way of living that rejected the patriarchal society of the 1970s when married women couldn’t even own property. Seen in this light, an attraction to an extreme alternative seems only logical. But like so many of these alternative communities, the limits of conventional society were re-enacted by a surrogate father figure who manipulated his followers. In 1991, Otto Muehl was arrested for having sex with minors and jailed for almost seven years. None of this is in the film, nor does it need to be.
Towards the end of the film Robert and his mother attend a gathering of parents and children who had lived at Friedrichshof. Two middle-aged women stand at a lectern and apologise to the children present for preventing them from having normal lives on the ‘outside’, and in some cases actually causing them physical, emotional and mental harm. The two cry as they speak. We are told in a voice-over that Robert’s mother blacked out at this moment and when she came to she had no idea why she was not in her house in France.
In their final conversation in the film, Robert’s mother admits to a sort of defeat. She tells him she had felt insecure as a mother and maybe if she had had more children she could have undone some of her mistakes. Then very quickly she adds, “But just because there were problems with Friedrichshof, you mustn’t idealise the nuclear family either!” And this is the heart of the film: to what lengths will we go to create what we think is a better world? Can naiveté excuse our mistakes? What are the responsibilities of a mother to her child and how can conflicting desires be reconciled? Robert’s need to understand, rather than condemn is admirable. At times his calm demeanour seems to hide a simmering rage at his mother’s gullibility, but mostly there is an unquenchable curiosity as to what drives people to relinquish responsibility while seeking deliverance from societal norms. And at what cost.