Paul-Julien Robert was born in 1979 into a commune founded by a leading member of the Viennese Actionist Art movement, Otto Mühl. It was a strange environment in which to live one’s formative years and he now seeks to explore it in his documentary, My Fathers, My Mother and Me (Meine Keine Familie, 2012). An incredibly brave investigation into his own difficult upbringing, and the hundreds that bowed to the will of the deplorable Mühl, it scooped the Grierson Award for Best Documentary at the 2013 London Film Festival and this week plays London’s Lexi Cinema in DocHouse’s ongoing Thursday series.
Friedrichshof was founded by Mühl in the early 1970s approximately fifty miles from the Austrian capital. According to its creator, the notion of living “together in communes is an important social experiment that will allow the transformation and evolution of the nuclear family society in the long term.” This initially meant dispensing with material possessions, and not only allowing but urging free love, but began to resemble a cult of which Mühl was the head. He devised strict hierarchical social structures and built a regime of humiliation and subjugation. Thus, Robert combines reams of archival footage with astonishingly candid interviews with his mother, Florence and a number of men who may potentially have been his actual father.
A lack of clear paternity was paramount inside Friedrichshof, where children were brought up by the collective. This was notionally to avoid the authority of normal parents, though it is a theory contradicted by unhappy, tormented childhoods. Robert delves back into this distressing period in an attempt to understand how this was allowed to happen. What he finds is a mass of people eager to relinquish responsibility for their own lives and actions to the collective, including the treatment of their own children. Florence seems extraordinarily willing to discuss intimate details and less than flattering actions. The home video footage from the commune also reveals some startling truths about what occurred, giving a clear picture of the cruelty that Mühl was capable of inflicting upon his followers.
Nothing highlights this more than the bizarre performances people were regularly forced to do in front of a crowd that were directed by Mühl and invariably demeaning. Things take a further darker turn in the third act when suggestions are made that, prior to Mühl’s arrest for sexual offences in 1991, the commune’s carnal freedom was not only encouraged amongst the adult members of the group. Yet Florence insists that, at the time, she always had complete faith in the system. It seems only to emphasise for her son the shocking questions that My Fathers, My Mother and Me raises about power, corruption and most strikingly, parental responsibility.
My Fathers, My Mother and Me screens as part of the DocHouse strand at the Lexi Cinema on 16 January, 2014. For more info, visit dochouse.org.