I had been “Facebook friends” with film-maker Paul Poet for a while without exchanging much. His page grabbed my attention recently when the name of Otto Mühl popped up on my timeline, Mühl being an artist whose work I really liked and still do. I knew that Mühl created a dubious sect (to say the least) and had died recently, but my interest in his work and in the Viennese Actionists was limited to attending some Hermann Nitsch talks along with exhibitions in Europe, all the more reason to give Paul Poet’s film MY TALK WITH FLORENCE a closer look, and I am glad I did. It is a gut-wrenchingly yet fluid account of the life of Florence Burnier-Bauer who fled a sexually abusive household, became a vagabond with her kids, and then found herself in Mühl’ sect. MY TALK WITH FLORENCE will be released in Austria (December 2015), Germany (January 2016), and is part of FID Marseille this year!
Kinofrau: The Viennese actionists were and to an extent still are transgressive artists, between Günter Brus’ Wiener Spaziergang, Hermann Nitsch’s live sexual actions, Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s images and his alleged accident/death/suicide, and Otto Mühl’s sect, there is plenty of material for a documentary. So what attracted/repelled you in Otto Mühl’s work and Florence’ story?
Paul Poet: Coming from an activist punk background in Vienna way back then, the artists of the Viennese actionists were always a prime inspiration from my very youthful creative beginnings onwards. They were the artists who were the no-shitters, they were the ones who rocked, when you grew up here in Vienna.They seemed to me as the most consequent artists by putting themselves by their art into a self-endangering distance to the codes of conduct of the current world order. And you definitely need this distance to criticize this Order and its modes and conventions of human interaction. Achieving this distance with such dirty experiences is quite refreshing, but I wouldn’t do all my work that way. It’s like the much-needed phase when the baby needs to eat and vomit dirt in order to grow and learn to invent even meaner or more subversive forms of art. So I had to go through that to learn how to provoke even deeper and more lasting. MY TALK WITH FLORENCE is part of that next step.
KF: Tell us more about the circumstances of you meeting Florence, was it difficult to get her to tell such a gut-wrenching story?
PP: I met Florence by chance when preparing this theater piece. She had been part of Otto Mühl’s commune for many years and suffered an especially dark fate in his hands, herself being victim of child abuse in her youth in her bourgeois French home and fleeing after years of horror and later surviving on the road. So she fled from the French police into this alternative society with all the promises of counterculture and a self-reliant strong future only to have her own three children taken away, broken and sexually abused. She was an essential part in the court case where Otto Mühl was sentenced to seven years in prison as the Commune Friedrichshof started to be dissolved from its full status. After the sentence where only a small part of what had happened was made public, Florence fought for 20 years to make her whole story heard. No one wanted to listen to her: No journalist, no politician, no policeman, not a single citizen. All turned away from her, because the story seemed too horrific and since the trial of Mühl as Austrian state artist was a big thing here, all wanted to have silence and peace snow over it. So through a shared friend we became acquainted and immediately hit a good vibe together. Our first conversation ended in like five hours of pouring out our souls with no holds barred. So her story became part of the theater play and she acted herself on stage, like having a reality break into an intentionally disgusting nightmare of a satire.So my film deals on a metaphoric level with how these systems of abuse manifest themselves in very similar ways in different forms of society. To me it’s not so much about revealing the „true“ evil that happened in the commune of Otto Mühl after it became spoiled by too much money, drugs and success. But that there is also an important symbolism in this life-story on what goes wrong in the world and with people in general. It doesn’t say all ideas in there were shit. The contrary is the case. But all that had been visionary in Friedrichshof got lost in ego, capital, social autism, exploitation and debauchery. By learning the life-story of Florence, you can sensitize yourself to the mechanics of abuse and learn to defend yourself. So this is the important legacy Florence wants to give. Otto Mühl himself is dead by now. She hardly could hurt him. But now she can find some peace with her own traumas and help others. I am helping her on the way. By this movie and otherwise. Gaining the trust was easy. After all, I am a filmmaker who doesn’t lie. That’s rare in itself.
KF: I gathered that the photo at the beginning of “My Talk With Florence” is Otto Mühl with someone whose face is hidden behind a dark stain. Can you tell us more about the image and where you found it? (photo below)
PP: The woman is Florence and this picture like a mystery gets revealed more and more in the course of the film. I did a framing animation of the story with text and some old pictures I had received from Florence. It was not easy since she has burnt and thrown away almost everything that reminded her of this past. But this picture she hated especially cause it shows how Otto Mühl forced her to laugh in a group photo at a point where most of the abuse had happened. So her smile is both very scared and scarred, an abuse in itself. The pic tells a lot about keeping up appearances for a society (or in this case counter-society) that has wounded you. For the animation I made a reference to historical propaganda mechanics, which i had studied for some years, Stalin in this case with his famous blacking out of persons from official photographs. Instead of shadows I used the materials common to the Viennese actionists, dirt, goo and shit, to paint over the face of Florence and black her out oft he picture just like the commune previously had tried to annihilate her existence from their annals.
Otto Mühl with Florence, her face hidden behind a shadow.
KF: In the presentation text you sent me about your film, “rethinking Cinéma Verité” is mentioned. What aspects did you want to alter in the Cinéma Verité approach to filmmaking?
PP: I don’t think it is about altering, but expanding and maturing the Verité approach. Austrian Films are often obsessed with the Real or Direct Cinema approach, Wiseman and the like. Any music would be kitsch. Catatonic framing. And all that dire Blah. The problem is this approach only really works if you film an institution for a longer time, since an institution can’t run away. Also this form of film never is pure, cause the institution will force its own interest in your movie while trying to look neutral on the surface. Verité Cinema always seemed more truthful to me cause it admits to the filmmaker as interacting force and creative partner, it admits to a filmic truth as an artistic creation. I studied Jean Rouch and especially his film Panther when I did my cinematic magnum opus, a film called Empire Me, that took me eight years to make. There Rouch had accompanied three African adolescents on an essential pathway in their life finding a sense and mission for their future, so doing the movie and having the exchanges with Rouch on eye-level co-formed the journey of this adolescents on an essential level. Verité is about truthfulness in the way you approach and reproduce your films and the people within. This does’t work by fixed rules but by exchange and constant communication and transferring the basic human permeability into the filmic form. So I accompanied Florence for many years and played an essential role in freeing herself from the ghosts of her past by doing this movie with her. There were many many methods that were used on this road, since this was a prepared talk, that used techniques from theater, film, performance, psychotherapy, even „Selbstdarstellung“, a form of artistic opening, she learned from Otto Mühl, it also uses personal friendship to help her find a voice for those parts she hadn’t repeated in the 10, 20, even 30 to 50 years during her desperate search to make her story heard. And we thankfully achieved that.
KF: Tell me more about the Austrian Culture Funds attack on your work. How was it received and what aspects were deemed attack-worthy exactly?
PP: Well, it is how censorship works in our modern Western so-called democracies. It is no force from a political above, but it is the „Gleichschaltung“ from within. I am quite known in Austria and internationally renowned as a provocative political filmmaker. Still, it seems, the more I am known, the more obstacles are given to me and I get more and more unable to fund my work. I suffered a lot a few years ago by having researched a very complex and big, already funded cinema documentary on the possible collapse of Europe and alternative forms of rebellion and counter-communes rising from the streets, which got axed like 2 weeks before official filming was to commence because the powers to be didn’t want to have any film to deal with that theme in a way dangerous to them. With FLORENCE it was especially evil, because it was by the „neutral decision“ juries, composed of so-called colleagues, who completely reviled my movie out of so-called politically correct reasons. It was not posh putting up with the theme of sexual abuse of men and women and children alike from another perspective but the „saving“ bourgeois one. I even myself was accused of being a rapist, by „forcing“ this woman in front of a camera, completely stomping over the fact this woman was ignored for two entire decades, while I was the first one who dared to really give her a helping hand. It is often said, it is a second rape how institutions deal with victims of abuse. These juries exactly mirrored this second rape in their behavior. It was especially hard for me to be accused as „rapist“ by this idiots since I have my own history of sexual abuse as a kid, which is one of the basic reasons why I had done this movie in the first place. Thankfully I could fight the whole issue on a political level up into the Austrian parliament. And I was able to finish the entire film with just 7.500 EURO overall funded budget. The first real audiences now have approved what hairraisingly stupid reasons these juries had given to block and censor my movie.
KF: You were part of the jury at the Istanbul Film Festival and there were some accounts of censorship. Was your film directly involved or what happened exactly?
PP: Istanbul Filmfestival didn’t censor me. To the contrary. They were the first big festival to give me a big international premiere. They are quite courageous in general, especially given the current political climate in Turkey. They embraced my new film very intensely, while the classical generic doc festivals completely ignore MY TALK WITH FLORENCE, which only proves how corporate and cowardly they all have developed. The absurd thing that happened, was, that I was additionally invited to be jury for the national Turkish Doc prize, about to be given for the first time in 2015. Then suddenly the Turkish Culture Ministry and in fact Erdogan had forbidden one film about PKK female freedom fighters, Bakur, to be screened. So the entire prize ceremony and almost all Turkish films withdrew from the festival as a protest to this government censorship. Which is quite absurd, traveling yourself as a filmmaker to this place to premiere your own film that was victim to censorship issues, only to deal with other local censorship issues here. Seems like the worldwide drift towards a new technocratic ultra-nationalism has made these pre-fascist and autistic forms of censoring more and more normal in any place of the world. It is very important to note, it is not just Russia, Turkey or the Arab countries doing this, but also Europe and the US, who still blatantly mask as open democracies.
Director Paul Poet, at MoMA, New York (May 2014) Shot by Christian Lehner
KF: Florence’s account of her experience on the periphery of the hippie and the Situationalist community, and later her involvement with the Friedrichshof sect really left me thinking that there is no real “alternative” to society the way it is organized today. It seemed that every attempt at liberation from our modern fetters ends up in a Foucault-inspired nightmare, on this level, My Talk with Florence somehow burries whatever hope one might have of a better place elsewhere. Did you intend to debunk all these alternative societies?
PP: That´s a definitive No. I show all the social and human structures of making rape and abuse shockingly normal by telling the life of Florence. Her life is especially relevant because these circles of abuse repeat throughout four different forms of social existence, the „safe“ post-war bourgeois home in Paris, the mental institution, the vagabond life on the road and the life in the commune as counter-society. I myself have no problem identifying the great basic ideas of the commune Friedrichshof and the essentially great artist in Otto Mühl, despite him being without doubt a disgusting person, a criminal and a child rapist. Looking at both sides oft he coin close enough, even makes it more easy and obvious, that there was a great and inspired time with the commune, before it became decadent, drugged and hungry for power and money, before it went the same way down as „normal society“ does, into the muck of corruption, abuse and autocracy up to the point of proto-fascism. Mühl, being so fascinated by Hitler and Stalin, a tone point even imitated the way how the Nazis used and abused free sexuality as means to catch the German adolescence into their hands. This still definitely doesn’t mean, all of the Commune was evil and bullshit. In my movie Empire Me I portray six such counterworlds, which work well and where a level of social happiness is achieved while living in opposition to the mainstream world. In this movie I portray ZeGG in Germany, the „state of free love“, a polyamourous ecovillage commune close to Berlin. They were loosely founded on the same principles as Friedrichshof was, founded by scholars of Mühl with free sexuality, free ownership, public therapy, Selbstdarstellung as essential means of public expression as basic pillars. The BIG difference here is, they abolished the guru figure, the fuehrer, within their first year. And ZeGG works wonderfully until today as an eye-level horizontal power structure. Our capitalist system has become so viscious and all-excluding, you really need to appreciate these social visions and experiments to learn from them for the bigger structure of the world. Otherwise we will have to face the complete abolishment of the democratic idea and the social pact very soon and we will have to face decades of war. The decision is in fact made by us all in the way we deal with culture, with ideas, with alternatives. Unfortunately currently most of us just follow the blindfold Hershey highway up to global smithereens.
Otto Mühl and the shadowed image of Florence, hidden behind excrement, dirt, and hair.
KF: We know that Florence got married, and then her husband Otmar Bauer died, can you tell us more about her (with respect to her discretion of course), what became of her? Where are her children today?
PP: As said, Florence played an essential part in the courtcase against Mühl. Not as a direct testimony, because she wasn´t allowed to testify in court despite the female judge knowing her entire story. But by accusing and reporting her daughter for false testimony, who was one of the abused kids appearing in court. So with her interference all masks collapsed and the truth was revealed. It was a much needed cruelty and especially hard to do for a mother, but it was essentially the pinnacle moment of the emancipation of Florence after almost 50 years of subordination, abuse and silencing. Before she had been already able to flee from the Commune with Mühls right hand man, artist Otmar Bauer, her lover, who later became her official husband. Otmar died years later from drinking too much and Florence now lives from a small widows pension besides doing some art herself. Her three kids all are traumatised themselves, but they all are in contact. What was the sweetest compliment for my film, is that Florence felt so freed by her story now being officially heard through the movie, she found the strength to move from Vienna to Berlin to approach her kids and take care of her grandchildren on a level, that is now freed from all the demons of the past.
KF: In your documentary, there is only Florence’s account of her life and details about the Friedrichshof sect in the second part of the film. So we only get her side of the story. Did you not want to film a confronting discourse, say that of Claudia Mühl’s implication in the sect, and why?
PP: My film is like all my films a self-test and a self-exploration for the audience. With Florence I intentionally wanted to show a radically subjective perspective. I don´t present this as journalist perspective and I would have no right to do so, As I do not have any interest in such a „neutral“ perspective. What is relevant to me , is not making the film part of a new courtcase, but telling a social and political metaphor about social oppression and individual resistance, that can be understood and used. Despite some people understanding MY TALK WITH FLORENCE as the most feel-bad film of all times, to me the film is a very cathartic and empowering survival guide. Ans a guide how to find your personal expression and to deconstruct conventional narrations of how stories about this issue are commonly told.
KF:Florence stated at the end of the documentary that Otto Mühl’s work, which is far from original or exemplary, is worth large sums of money in the art market. Do you see an issue or problem between the value placed on Mühl’s work and the context in which it was generated, that of an abusive, horrifying sect?
PP: Florence is the only person that was completely expelled from Friedrichshof who didn´t receive any payment by the Friedrichshof and the Mühl trust ever due to her involvement in the courtcase happened. All abused children receive regular payments, but not for the crimes but being part of the trust and you may guess, to silence them. I really would wish, now that Mühl is dead, that all persons involved would deal openly with all that had happened in the Commune, to really be able to see and appreciate the good parts beside the many bad ones. I also would wish, that at least part of the money that gets in by selling his art, so many hands have built alongside Mühl under his name, receive real reparation payments and the right to an official truth. I think, that would be more than fair.