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My fathers, my mothers and me

Filmmaker Paul-Julien Robert spent his childhood in a Viennese sex commune. This is his story

The sexual revolution spawned its fair share of out-there cults, but none more so than Friedrichshof in Austria. Set up by Viennese actionist Otto Muehl, the commune was governed by Muehl's self-engineered principles of communal property and free love. In theory, Muehl meant to destroy the nuclear family unit; in practice, it meant a ban on all couple relationships and a rule that members had to have sex three or four times a day, with different partners.  

Documentary-maker Paul-Julien Robert grew up in Friedrichshof, and My Fathers, My Mother and Me is his attempt to come to terms with his mother and his troubled upbringing, and a means to interrogate wider questions about parental responsibility and abuse of power. This year, it won Best Documentary Award at this year's London Film Festival. Dazed spoke to Robert about this devastating portrait of mother and son, and its quietly powerful critique of radical 60s counterculture. 

Dazed Digital: How did you first approach making this documentary?

Paul-Julien Robert: At the beginning I wanted to make a movie just about Christian, a man who committed suicide at the commune. But I realized quite early on that the only way to talk about the commune was through my story. It’s taken five years.

DD: Growing up, how different was Friedrichshof from its reputation as a sex commune?

Paul-Julien Robert: That was one part of it, but even that changed in 15 years – at its end, it was no more sexually free than one would imagine. After five, six years, those original ideas didn’t exist at all. Otto Muehl wanted power, and he wanted to decide. There were a lot of communes in the 70s all over Europe, but most of them existed for three, four years before people started going in different directions. Friedrichshof existed for so long because Otto was so authoritarian.

DD: Muehl was arrested in the 90s for having sex with minors. Have you spoken to him since he left prison?

Paul-Julien Robert: I talked twice with him. Once I lived with his older son and went to a private dinner; I started to ask him questions but he just got up and walked away. 

DD: After five years, can you understand any better why the idea of this commune was so attractive to people?

Paul-Julien Robert: I can totally understand the attraction for another way of living. The nuclear family way of living is not natural – maybe we are living it because it’s the simple way to not to be lonely. There are many reasons not to do it: to look for possibilities, other ways of communicating, living together and sharing responsibilities. And to raise children. 

DD: There are points in the film where you seem almost angry at your mother for raising you in such an unusual environment. Were you angry?

Paul-Julien Robert: There were a lot of feelings but I did not want to show her my anger. I wanted to tell her what my feelings were and I wanted to know what her feelings were. It was really curiosity to know why she made these decisions or why she didn’t make any decisions.

DD: Looking back, how do you view your childhood in Friedrichshof?

Paul-Julien Robert: I look back and I cannot believe what was actually happening there. It has nothing to do with the life I’m living. I can just laugh about it.

DD: Did making the film help you reach any kind of emotional resolution with your childhood? 

Paul-Julien Robert: For me, it wasn’t not about finding solutions. It was about looking and focusing and looking as precisely as possible on certain moments. Sure, your childhood affects you but you cannot solve it – you have to learn to live with it.