Undoing Family in ‘Servus Papa, See You in Hell’

by Annalisa Giacinti // Jan. 31, 2023

This article is part of our feature topic ’FAMILY.’

“My childhood was a paradise until I fell in love” may seem, to many, an uncommon thing to say. Not so for Jeanne Tremsal, who grew up in a commune where exclusive love was forbidden and everyone had to be in love with everyone else. The 46-year-old writer and actress opens up about her youth in one of the recent interviews she gave following the release of ‘Servus Papa, See You in Hell’ (2022). The feature film, which she wrote with director Christopher Roth, and also acted in, is based on Tremsal’s memoirs and recounts her childhood and early experiences at the infamous Aktionsanalytische Organisation (AAO) commune founded by controversial Austrian artist Otto Mühl in 1972. Inspired by true events, yet romanticised, Roth’s coming-of-age tale exploits the classical cinematic form to counterbalance the brutality of Mühl’s politics, delivering what is, at times, an idealised and simplistic version of a multifaceted and complex subject. In so doing, ‘Servus Papa’ champions the idea that any form of kinship, no matter how seemingly alternative or experimental, has the potential to fall into the suffocating patterns of rigid institutions.

Tremsal lived at the AAO with her sister Julie from the age of two until about 14. The two were brought there by their parents, who wanted them “to grow up in a better world, so that [they] wouldn’t be like all the squares outside.” They didn’t know that their daughters would have to endure much worse than that. Upon forming the commune, Mühl was already a scandal-ridden participant in Viennese Actionism, an art movement that developed in the 60s and consisted predominantly of performance art imbued with transgressiveness and provocation. Often the Actionists, among whom were artists Günther Brus and Hermann Nitsch, resorted to the use of feces, blood and other bodily fluids in lieu of more standard art materials.They used the human body as a canvas for their work, or rather as a site for abjection and violence. Moved by the same disruptive spirit and embittered by the failure of his own marriage, Mühl established the AAO commune in Friedrichshof, in the southeastern region of Austria, with the intent of forging a new way of living together informed by counter-culture practices, Marxism and Reichian psychotherapy. Free from the shackles of materialism, bourgeois trappings and normative societal rules, he preached collective ownership, free love and sexuality.

The film’s diegesis is told by Tremsal herself, portrayed by Jana McKinnon, who informs us of the ethos and workings of Otto’s utopia, while disclosing its inner contradictions and harrowing truth. First, it is made known that all communards are allocated to different ranks of a so-called “structure,” a hierarchy designed and managed by its self-appointed head, Otto, who is played by a convincing albeit significantly younger and more attractive Clemens Schick. At Mühl’s behest monogamy is forbidden, the nuclear family is labelled a bourgeois invention and “the root of all evil” and homosexuality condemned as depraved. Moreover, befitting his idiosyncratic version of free love, is the fact that men are not assigned rooms in the commune but encouraged to find a different woman to sleep with every night. Overall, Otto’s word is law and whoever transgresses it is publicly humiliated. Group performative therapy is practised daily and used to overcome neuroses and “cast off the ego,” of which we see an example in one of the first scenes in the movie, when Simone gets slapped in the face for having fallen in love with fellow communard Holger.

It soon becomes clear that Otto is not at all the spokesperson for genuine ideals of freedom, equality and community, but rather a tyrannical and authoritarian figure whose intellectual onanism ought to be worshipped by every member of the Friedrichshof society. A god-like persona that symbolically murders biological parents through enactment of his Oedipal injunctions. “It wasn’t only bad there,” says Tremsal. “In fact, as a young child it was paradise: art, music, horses, the outdoors. But it became authoritarian and hell. The film is fiction, but it is my story.” This fictionalised adaptation of Tremsal’s personal memories adopts a child’s perspective in painting a picture of events, and it alternates between blissful scenes of natural idyll spent outdoors amongst animals, and horrific episodes of sexual abuse, such as Jeanne’s own rape at the hands of Otto.

Paradise and hell take turns in shaping a fragmentary rendition of her story, which is reflective of the mnemonic effort underpinning the narrative strategy as well as the filmic style used. Faux VHS shots resembling lo-fi observational documentary techniques interrupt more polished wide-angle footage. Occasional jump cuts in the editing and multiple flashbacks revisit previously narrated parts and constantly shift the attention of the viewer breaking up the linearity of the film, which seems to focus more on explaining the commune’s structural dynamics rather than on developing the characters and a denser plot. As a result, the latter becomes a little repetitive and stale, almost hesitant to be wrapped up. Nonetheless the movie manages to entertain, mainly thanks to the spot-on cast, its striking visual exuberance (occasional neon green explanatory drawings appear on the screen), as well as the eclectic music choices that range from punk to catchy pop tunes.

A sense of playfulness is what Roth and Tremsal deliberately pursued, so that the film’s aesthetics would be attuned to the point of view of its young narrator. Indeed, their ambition wasn’t to write a realist movie with the aim of denouncing a past wrong, but to work within a space of inexactness where Otto’s last name is never explicitly mentioned and the main source of reference are Tremsal’s diary notes. The outcome is a romanticised version of a story of redemption and liberation, of coming-of-age and youth emancipation that cheerfully ridicules Otto’s attempts at controlling and supervising love and friendship that meanwhile covertly blossom under his jurisdiction. ‘Servus Papa’ successfully exposes the preposterousness of the artist’s endeavour, and hints at the possibility of an entire spectrum of forms of togetherness—like friendly solidarity—that help us escape institutional or familial constraints.

Nevertheless the film misses the chance to source from this wide spectrum and instead relies on a set of dichotomies that hardly deconstruct or “undo,” in Judith Butler’s words, the traditional Western apprehension of family. Rather, it reinforces the all-too-familiar ideas of affection, i.e. the romantic, exclusive and heterosexual kind of love shared by the protagonists Jeanne and Jean (Leo Altaras). Ultimately, the many oppositions between the commune and the real world, adults and children, free and monogamous love, the individual (the commune’s patriarch) and the mass (the rebellious youth) become exaggerated while the many nuances in between remain unrepresented.

What we do eventually witness is Papa’s surreal and symbolic undoing. Within the parameters of the classical formula of entertainment, the movie yields a sort of final catharsis—the resolution we, the audience, had been hoping for. As Otto’s wives throw the children’s diaries, including Tremsal’s, into a big fire, Jeanne stabs “Papa,” with a contemptuous smile while the heavenly voices of Bavarian trio Fischbachau chant in the background. Neon green blood squirts out of Otto’s wound in a bright vision of revenge that dims as, the next day, he is quietly taken away by the police. In 1991, Mühl’s arrest for sexual abuse of minors and drug-related offences marked the dissolution of the Friedrichshof commune as he was sentenced to seven years of prison. To this day its former members and victims grapple with the painful effects of his violence; Tremsal has taken that pain and turned it into a buoyant visual experience, and that is yet another form of love.

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