Surviving Life in a ‘70s Sex Commune

Three decades after growing up in a European free-love commune, Paul-Julien Robert plunged into the film archives to make the extraordinary documentary, My Fathers, My Mother and Me.

Barbara Pflaum/IMAGNO

Paul-Julien Robert grew up on a country estate with dozens of adults; but he had no idea which one was his father. In the European free-love commune, where he was born in the late 1970s, pretty much all of the men had slept with his mother, any of them could be his dad.

Founded as a utopia where possessions, childcare, and love were communal, traditional family structures were banned. Paul-Julien was an unwitting participant in a social experiment that would end in police raids and the commune’s architect jailed for having sex with minors.

Otto Mühl, who was also a celebrated artist, founded the commune at Friedrichshof near Vienna in Austria in pursuit of a better society, but also to cure his loneliness. At the head of this sprawling collection of men, women, and children, the power he assumed over so many lives drove him to take an ever more authoritarian approach. By the end Friedrichshof was effectively a cult.

The commune’s descent into madness was documented on video by the inhabitants who wanted to preserve the great lessons of this experimental living. Three decades on, Paul-Julien plunged into the film archives to make an extraordinary documentary, My Fathers, My Mother and Me, about what the commune did to the minds of those who lived there.

Interspersed with clips from life on the commune, Paul-Julien sits down with the children he grew up with until the commune collapsed when he was 12, the man he later discovered was his dad, and his mother, who grows more emotional, and more mournful as the moving film progresses.

Your mother seems to be realizing what you went through as the film progresses, had you never discussed it before?

Not really, having the cameras there made us focus on the topic. It’s not just that she was telling me what happened. She was also saying it to herself.

I was nervous to show it to her but then she said—after two minutes—it’s your story, your film. She had another story—she would have made a different film.

It seemed she was surprised to watch some of those videos but she must have known.

Yeah, most of the people didn’t know how to handle normal life—they didn’t want to talk about the commune afterwards, they wanted to move on. She took responsibility for me, she said she would take care of me, and she still thinks she did the best for me.

For me the toughest scene in the film is when my mother and my father are speaking. It’s the first time in the film there’s talk about guilt.

How did it feel to hear them saying they felt no remorse?

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I have the feeling that it was not honest. I think, yeah, they do feel guilty.

Mühl is this brooding background presence but he’s not on screen much.

You know, it’s very easy to lose yourself from what you are aiming to do. It’s very easy to get lost and lose your personality and when you have 300 people and you can do what you want with people. It’s only a matter of time before you lose reality. At the beginning—he says it in the film—he was lonely and he wanted to have power. The whole system was not about people but really about power. He was not allowing people to have relationships, he was separating the kids from the mothers he wanted more and more power.

At one point another woman says to your mother, “He didn’t take the power—you gave it to him.” She looked devastated.

Yeah, that was it from the beginning. They gave it to him.

You don’t really make him the bad guy.

I really tried to keep him out as much as possible—it’s about the people around him. The scene where he pours water over the kid [the child is in tears after refusing repeated demands to perform a song at one of the nightly group meetings], it’s the fact that there are 300 people there doing nothing. For me that was one of the most positive scenes in the whole film, and a friend said this to me later: “There was someone who said no.”

No matter how strong people are there is someone who will say no. When you see Otto in the next scene he is being helpful, he’s like: “err, err..” He’s trying to justify it. The boy, Lucifer, realized it then—he said to me he recognized Otto Mühl is crazy—and he said no, he wouldn’t do it.

How are you doing now?

I don’t know… It affected me. I remember after I left I had this girlfriend, and I was really feeling bad that I just loved one girl—for me it was not a usual feeling. I felt really ashamed of it.

Soon I will be a father, but I don’t have a father-figure to look up to and see how do you do it.

Your father does have a family now. That must be surreal.

It’s nice for me to see that. When he told me he was going to be a father and I was like 15 or 16-years-old, I felt there would be more and more distance between us, but it was the opposite – and now I have a brother!

Were there any benefits of growing up in a commune?

Yeah, for sure. I really got my stability not through objects, but through my social communities through the people I’m living with and sharing with. I was not so manipulated by consumerism—I’ll be a father in three months and I’m not sure how I can keep that away from her.

For me it’s not a film about this commune, it’s really to see how systems are working, would you give away your responsibility? It was happening in the past and it’s happening now. Companies today are trying to change the people so they are happy workers, it’s crazy—they are trying to change their feelings, their aims, in order to make them more productive. That’s really something scary to me. It’s wow! Just like the commune, but a lot of companies are doing it.