Without a camera, no concentration.
Paul-Julien Robert a conversation with Claus Philipp about „MY FATHERS, MY MOTHER & ME“

Claus Philipp: What does going public mean for you, in the context of making a story like this available to the public?

Paul-Julien Robert: I took a step-by-step approach; I didn't say to myself from the start that it would end up as a finished film. Initially my aim was to find out what happened to my legal father. I knew about the Friedrichshof archives, and I thought there must be material about him there, so I planned to make a short film with him as the main character. But gradually the story became increasingly personal, because I also knew that if the commune became one of the subjects of the film, I would have to be subjective and only tell my own story. So the step of presenting this to a broader public is a new adventure for me, and I don't know how it's going to work out...

Philipp: To what extent did you have the feeling that your mother was withholding from you crucial aspects of your own life story?

Robert: My mother has never withheld anything from me, but she hasn't made an effort to analyse what happened. For example, even after a man in the commune committed suicide there were never any conversations about that event, about what his reasons were. When I asked my mother about this five years ago, she repeated exactly the same theory that Otto Mühl had put forward the evening after Christian‘s suicide. So she had never really thought about it; she just accepted what had been offered as an explanation, like so many other things.

Philipp: How have you felt over recent years about the way the commune has been portrayed by art historians – as somebody who lived there as a child but at the same time also experienced things like the stylisation of Otto Mühl in the media and the evaluation of Actionism by the artistic establishment? Did it feel as though these commentaries had nothing really to do with your own story?

Robert: No, I never actually felt emotionally involved, or annoyed by certain commentaries or interpretations, because it really was the case that everybody experienced it differently. That's just the way it is, and you have to accept it. There are 500 people who lived there, and everyone experienced it in a different way, and everyone has the right to describe how he experienced it. There isn't any doubt that Otto Mühl instigated something in art, that he played a role. I don't have any problem with that.

Philipp: A great feature of your film is that it moves beyond the concrete situation of a child growing up in Friedrichshof to provide wider metaphors about the relationship between children and parents. One of the most important of these, for example, is that we can't choose who our parents are and why they decided to bring us into the world. And that's a problem facing the son of a neo-Nazi just as much as the child of super-rich parents. What kind of picture did you develop – also in conversations with your mother – of that situation, of being thrown into the world?

Robert: I always had the feeling, ever since childhood really, that I couldn't hold anything against my mother, that she did her best and believed it was good for me. But at some point I started to wonder whether she had ever asked me how I was feeling. Where I wanted to live. She never did that. And that's definitely something I could now hold against her. I could say she just should have found another way of communicating with me, she should have tried to establish what her child's needs were. Because for me that commune, that system where people were living, was a microcosm like every other social form, and 20 years later, with the benefit of distance, there are an awful lot of parallels with every other society.

Philipp: Would you say that the conversations you conduct in the film, with your mother for example, could have taken place without the camera? How far was it the case that the camera, the act of making this documentary film, was an important trigger that served to get the conversations started?

Robert: The camera was definitely the instrument which created the situation. Without the camera the situation would not have arisen whereby I confronted my mother in that way and the dialogue was created. There wouldn't have been enough concentration. The conversations wouldn't have been possible.

Philipp: There are quite often situations in families where people say: "Don't argue with me in public," or "Don't discuss that in front of strangers." How do you think your mother felt, knowing that this film would attract a certain public interest?

Robert: During filming itself, I think she was too involved in the situation with me, and she really wanted to know what my thoughts were, what my needs were, and she trusted me not to misrepresent her.

Philipp: When it got to the editing stage, did she ever say that maybe some things ought to remain just between the two of you?

Robert: No, although while we were editing I often thought to myself: hey, isn't that going a bit too far? But when she saw the film she said she wouldn't interfere in it, and so did my father.

Philipp: In general it seems that a lot of the former members of the commune had a great deal of trust in you. Do you think this arose partly because they had a sort of guilty conscience about somebody being forced to go through all that as a child?

Robert: No, I don't think so. With my father I never had the feeling that was his motivation, and it wasn't like that for my mother either, partly because this was a way she could begin the process of coming to terms with what happened.

Philipp: Do you remember some sort of final conversation with Otto Mühl?

Robert: Several years ago, when I had the MAK exhibition, I met him in the Alt Wien café. The artistic manager invited me over to Otto‘s table, and we started talking. He wanted to create a bit of propaganda and show me how the children in Portugal were painting, but I said I wasn't so interested in that at the moment and would prefer to ask him what happened with the girls back then. He responded by getting up and walking off. That was the last conversation I had with him.

Philipp: The film explicitly doesn’t focus on certain things that are normally associated with the Mühl commune in the sensational media, such as child abuse and so on; it concentrates more on a higher level of manipulation – but without negating that. How was the decision made to tell the story of the children at Friedrichshof without putting these things so blatantly in the foreground?

Robert: I was fortunate that the commune came to an end before I reached puberty, so I was never introduced into the "free sexuality" aspect of it all. But Jean, one of my protagonists, said he was prepared to talk about the sexual abuse he suffered. I'd say it didn't become a central theme in the film simply because I didn't experience it myself.

Philipp: The impulse you mentioned, to question Mühl - it almost sounds like it could be a scene in a film, including the bit where he walked out...

Robert: I really didn't mean it as so much of an attack. No, it was genuine curiosity on my part. I really wanted to know what he had to say to me about it. And he didn't want to say anything at all.