Captive To The Commune

Mark Lilla reviews Paul-Julian Robert’s My Fathers, My Mother, and Me, a new documentary about Friedrichshof, an infamous Austrian commune that was once the largest in Europe. The commune, where the filmmaker was raised, was founded by Otto Mühl:

Films of the earlier years make the place seem idyllic. But over the years Mühl became increasingly dictatorial and in the Eighties it came to light that he was sexually abusing some of the children. The commune was dissolved, and in 1991 he was convicted of pedophilia and spent seven years in prison. He died this past May at the age of eighty-seven.

The mystery at the heart of the film:

[W]hat drew so many young people to this sociopath and kept them with him for so many years? Why did they adore him? Why did they turn a blind eye to the way their children were treated?

To Robert’s evident frustration, his mother is unable to enlighten us. She is neither defensive nor flighty, just very adept at keeping reality at bay. One feels sorry for her, too. She tears up occasionally and says her son has the wrong picture of what it was like. Mühl was not so important, she says; we made our decisions together. The children seemed happy and they were saved from the stifling, soul-destroying childrearing practices of the middle classes. But she has no answers, and isn’t eager to find any. She is old now, nicely dressed, soft-spoken and all suffering. One sees that she has trouble digesting her son’s revelations and confessions; she genuinely has no idea how the experience scarred him. It’s not evident that the son understands that, or sees that she, too, suffered from the collapse of her illusions. He’s a sensitive but pitiless young man, which is what makes this such an extraordinarily gripping film.