«Saying, "That's me, I lived through that," was certainly the most difficult step»

Paul-Julien Robert talks about his MY FATHERS, MY MOTHER AND ME

The story of your childhood is personal and relates to society as a whole at the same time. What aspect made you want to shoot a film about growing up at the Friedrichshof Commune?
Paul-Julien Robert: Curiosity. I wanted to know more about it, confirm my memories and question them. Take a look at what that child experienced during this time. I still often talk about myself as “that child” when my own childhood’s involved.
Was there ever a time you hesitated about how to approach the theme in a film?
Paul-Julien Robert: Yes, I wrestled with myself for a very long time. And I didn’t want to make the film overly personal. At first I worked on the project alone, when it was more about Christian, one of my possible fathers. I wanted to find out more about him, to know more about what happened back then. I knew there was extremely powerful footage of his last performance. I also knew that as soon as I touched upon the subject of the commune there would be only one proper way to approach it. Finding this approach was the difficulty I then faced. What I knew from the very beginning was what kind of film I didn’t want to make.
Which was?
Paul-Julien Robert: I didn’t want to make a film about the commune or talk about an ideology that I didn’t experience. I didn’t want to talk about other people. The other perspectives would be captured through other protagonists.
Was visiting an archive one of the first things you did?
Paul-Julien Robert: That’s right. There were lots of discussions with former residents of the commune, but before shooting started the most important subject was Christian Anxionnaz, and a great deal involved my mother, and there was a lot of work at the archive, of course. An incredible number of documents were produced at the time, so the archive now has plenty of material. At first each cassette was totally exciting. There are about 5000 cassettes, which means nearly 10,000 hours of material. Most of it was labeled and categorized a little. During the past five, six years solely the daily meetings were filmed, in addition to occasional meals with Otto Mühl. But before that a lot of daily life was filmed, the children playing, etc. In the ’70s everything was on Super 8, and there isn’t as much material from that time. But from the early ’80s filming took place daily. I concentrated on the time after Christian killed himself. I looked for the VHS cassettes with that date and found the footage of his performance pretty quickly, then watched it all that night, and it lasted close to three hours by itself. Then I began looking for spots with me. I think I examined 300 to 400 hours and got an overview of over 500 hours; what I found was definitely a matter of coincidence too.
You started off by saying that when you refer to yourself as a child at Friedrichshof, it’s still in the third person. Was this distance and alienation involved in the way you view your images from childhood?
Paul-Julien Robert: Yes, it wouldn’t be possible any other way. The first time I saw Christian’s performance, I was forced to make a kind of decision: Either I permit myself to have these feelings and look at these images in an emotional way, or I maintain a distance and look at them as if they were from a strange world that no longer exists, as something like a stage play. I spent lots of time at the archive the first two years and maintained an extremely distanced attitude. At some point it all became emotional, when I realized that this boy still lives inside me.
How did you develop your filmic concept?
Paul-Julien Robert: Making a documentary is a little like sculpting: You start off with a huge block, arrange everything in the various timelines, and then gradually remove parts until the contours of a figure appear. Then you re-orient yourself on that basis. We had finished a 60-minute rough cut that was then abandoned. I knew that there are certain things where I can’t do the telling, and I didn’t want to tell them by means of a voiceover. I soon realized who I wanted to work with from my generation. Zoe and Luzi were two of the first kids born there in 1974. They experienced the early years in a different way. I didn’t talk to Zoe about how she saw her experiences there, but about how she sees it all today, now that she’s a mother herself and because of that has had some experiences I haven’t. Luzi interested me so much because he saw through the system’s insanity at an early point and consciously opposed and resisted it. I had already made a short film with Jean. He was willing to talk about the sexual abuse, and I was glad that he confided so much in me.
Others also confided in you, most importantly your mother. Getting this examination started undoubtedly required a great deal of openness from both sides. What was the discussion with your mother like?
Paul-Julien Robert: There was never a question of trust. She was willing to participate from the very beginning. At times it became a little too much for her, but she never said she wanted to stop participating. And we didn’t deal with everything all at once, but shot the material a day or two at a time over a period of two years. I never had the sense that I was crossing a line with my mother by discussing it with her, because during the 15 years she spent at the commune she discussed matters involving her parents constantly. Her own parents, who had messed her up, and about the effects that had—for her it was a central theme during her time at the commune.
The film captures a number of extremely emotional moments, where it’s easy to see how the people involved are overwhelmed by their pain. In particular I’m thinking about Christian’s father, who belongs to a generation that doesn’t permit the display of emotions.
Paul-Julien Robert: It was extremely difficult with him on the first day, and then everything turned out great. He had no problems with the camera, though I didn’t tell him beforehand about my intention of filming it. I tried to discuss Christian with him, but that didn’t work at all. When I showed him a photograph, he talked about the building in the background and never mentioned his son. After an hour or two he said a few words, then stopped because it was too much for him. I was happy that he was willing to deal with that subject at all. On the second day there was an unplanned reunion with his sisters, and that went extremely well.
What were the most important moments for you personally?
Paul-Julien Robert: I think it was the fact that thanks to the archival material, I could comprehend a lot of things emotionally that I could only grasp in intellectual terms before then. I could look at this boy and knew what he was feeling at the time. Allowing that to happen and saying, “That’s me, I lived through that,” was certainly the most difficult step, but it was also the most important one.
How did you balance the archival material and your own footage in terms of editing?
Paul-Julien Robert: It was an extremely long process. We edited material for one or two weeks at a time, mostly because Oliver Neumann had other projects to work on. The breaks were also necessary, mostly because we got stuck again and again and weren’t satisfied with the results. We never modeled our work on the archival material, we used it without ever wanting to prove something. We started with the interviews and scenes of the trip that we helped document. The archival material was added to that, and we tried to find a rhythm. The archival footage comprises about one third of the entire film. It was part of the concept, that archival material would represent a significant portion. We got virtually everything we wanted, which wasn’t easy. The association that manages it now had a lot of trust in us. It was great to learn that they considered the film important.
How many children lived at Friedrichshof?
Paul-Julien Robert: I think that about 400 were born there, most of them in the final two years. I was one of the first, I think I was the eighth child to be born at Friedrichshof. A lot of mothers moved there later with their children. It was a large group. We had a private elementary and secondary school. I spent almost all the first 12 years of my life at Friedrichshof. The outside was completely foreign to me, except for a few trips, such as to visit my grandparents at Christmas, and starting in 1987 we all went to the Canary Island Gomera, where we lived in total isolation on a finca. While traveling we were always in a self-contained group. There wasn’t any contact with other kids or people, we were totally blocked off.
What was the transition to the “outside world” like after the commune shut down?
Paul-Julien Robert: It was extremely abrupt. I think we—both adults and children—had trouble dealing with the situation. I was lucky because I had a mother who was willing to take care of me and who had a job. Some of the children were suddenly all alone. It was really difficult for them. For me it meant a big step, moving to Zurich. It was a huge contrast, I didn’t understand this other world and didn’t want anything to do with it. I rejected it completely.
After doing the research and all the interviews, did you find an explanation for why members of your parents’ generation subordinated themselves to an authoritarian system in what they assumed was rebellion?
Paul-Julien Robert: I doubt they ever experienced a single moment of total freedom there. From the very beginning, the point was to conform and give up responsibility. They were rid of all responsibility when they moved to Friedrichshof. They rebelled against their parents and right away found the father figure they were looking for in Otto Mühl. The hierarchical structure was there from the beginning, he didn’t accept anyone as his equal.
Was the sense of being accepted something you missed very much at the commune?
Paul-Julien Robert: Yes, definitely. On the one hand, being permitted to be the person you are and learning to trust in yourself to say, “That’s what I want, that’s the way I am, those are my feelings.” We had to conform in every way, and living as individuals wasn’t possible.
In her memories Zoe mentions the fact that there was an irreconcilable break with her parents because she felt betrayed, though at the same time she considers a relationship with her parents possible. Did your work on the film change your relationship with your mother?
Paul-Julien Robert: Not really. My relationship with my father changed, and so did my relationship with my mother’s husband. There’s always been a great deal of trust between my mother and me, and we’ve always been close. She’s always given me a great sense of security and that hasn’t changed much. It’s different with the people around me.
When the film has its theatrical release, will it go beyond the experience of this personal story and also be a reminder of this social project and its failure?
Paul-Julien Robert: Of course, I’m excited to hear the reactions to the film. At the same time it isn’t a film about the commune. It’s a completely subjective view of the situation and one more piece in the puzzle. Plenty has been written about it, and there are films too. What I really like was the response of some young people who would like to see the film with their parents because it touches upon the basic issues of responsibility, childhood and being a parent. That’s more important to me than the fact that it focuses on a childhood at a commune.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
April 2013