Director/Writer: Paul-Julien Robert
Synopsis: A documentary uncovering the Friedrichshof commune of 1970s Austria – a place where men and women lived under no restrictions or institutions and raised dozens of children as a collective. One such child – now 32 – director, writer Paul-Julien Robert, looks back on the experience, interviewing his own mother, potential fathers and surrogate siblings.
Paul-Julien Robert’s brave and disturbing analysis of his childhood, his parents’ youthful sexuality and the commune in which he was brought up in deserves multiple accolades. Bringing to light an eerie history, of which he was at the centre of, would be a difficult task for even the most practiced filmmakers. Robert’s structure is masterful, studying the many trials and tribulations of the Friedrichshof commune in a tight 93 minutes. Problems only exist for the non-German speaking audience, for whom many photographed pamphlets and articles will be lost in translation.
The prologue’s brief introduction and explanation of the commune shows it as a free-loving estate, where the 70’s vibe and ideology lingers in the air like a pleasant incense. The idea behind the commune was that no one felt under a system of control. Stemming from this notion was the belief that children born there should be taken care of by multiple adults, leaving the child to feel freer without the authority of an identifiable parental figure. Unfortunately, this drastic dissolution of social institutions affected many of the children (and some of the adult members), leaving dozens scarred by the experience.
The focus begins on Paul’s mother who was an extremely active member of the commune, nudge nudge, wink wink. Her frivolity left the identity of Paul’s father ambiguous for many years – a question later brought up. An incredibly open woman, his mother never defies her son’s questioning, even when it means her discussing a very explicit aspect of her time in the commune. Kudos to Robert who listens intently despite hearing facts no son/daughter would ever want to.
As his mother was absent for parts of Friedrichshof’s development she saw little of the abuse that went on. Being one of the few adult members interviewed we do not have much information or opinions on how the parents reacted to children’s humiliation and abandonment. Seeing examples of this by way of archive footage is highly distressing at points. The children are made to perform in order to reveal their freedom – ironically opposed in the children’s eyes. The ringmaster of all this was the despicable Otto Mühl.
Under Mühl’s orders the children had to dance, sing and even sleep with his wife and him (boys for his wife, girls for himself) as a way of educating and expressing themselves. Shifting from his mother as the focal point, to his potential fathers, to a few interviews with fellow “surrogate siblings”, the most intriguing and eye-opening analysis of the commune is Mühl. Given power from the surrounding members, Mühl’s ego erupted, leaving a sociopathic tyrant as the leader. Once this figure is discovered in amongst the crowds of the commune he stands out. Emphasising his notoriety gives the documentary and villain, making the drama all the more pungent.
Leaving you with clenched teeth and balled up fists at the sight and mention of Mühl, Robert’s film has power. It also a great deal of poignancy as it largely involves the unearthing of many repressed memories and emotions. Robert is the least open of all the “cast” yet staying headstrong for a great deal of the film keeps the documentary thoughtful and measured.
Also posted on LiveForFilms