Year: 2011
Country: 
Austria
Language: German
Director: Marie Kreutzer
Screenplay: Marie Kreutzer
Cinematography: Leena Koppe
Soundscore: David Hebenstreit
Cast: Andrea Wenzel, Andreas Kiendl, Emily Cox, Philipp Hochmair, Sami Loris, Marion Mitterhammer, Johannes Krisch, Pia Hierzegger
Runtime: 105 min
Trailer: on YouTube (not subtitled)
Film’s official website: Die Vaterlosen (in German)

Seen at a screening at the Austrian Cultural Forum London organised as part of the Cine Club platform (free showings, but films screen fairly irregularly). 

If I had to sum up Die Vaterlosen, Marie Kreutzer’s debut feature film, in a single metaphor only, I would compare it to a heap of yarn that has become incredibly tangled – so tangled that for the longest while it is impossible to see how one length of string connects to another. Only very slowly is the yarn undone, only very slowly are the knots loosened, until we finally reach a point where we can see the web dissolve as we pull the strings back and forth through loops. And then, when we have nearly done it, when we are nearly there, we hit a snag – that one knot that resists the nimblest of fingers and can only be undone with scissors.

It’s not an ordinary story that Die Vaterlosen tells. The death of Hans (Johannes Krisch), an eccentric and domineering patriarch of what was once a flourishing commune of several men, women and children, brings together the offspring – now all grown-up and long since having flown the nest – once more. While such life-altering events as someone’s demise are bound to stir up emotions, it is not so much a sense of grief that takes over, but other, long suppressed feelings of bitter disappointment and anger. The trigger for this is Kyra (Andrea Wenzel), who walks in the door of the huge country house that once accommodated the commune for the first time in 23 years. Her unexpected entrance is like a bombshell, as Mizzi (Emily Cox), the youngest of the clan, has never seen her before and can’t understand why she was kept in the dark about her sister’s existence. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she rails at her siblings, a rightful question that they respond to with evasive glances.

Mizzi, distraught and in the dark.

Mizzi is only fed bits of the story – Kyra’s mother decided to leave the commune, she took the daughter, then eight, with her – and generally treated like a fragile creature by her mother (Pia Hirzegger) and two brothers. When she throws a tantrum and her hands curl up strangely, the men, one a doctor by profession, argue about getting her proper therapy as if Mizzi weren’t there. The dynamics are undeniably odd, although we can’t be too sure why. But it’s not just Mizzi and Kyra that are a little strange. The deathbed conversation that Miguel (Sami Loris) has with Hans also provides a glimpse of a deeply strained relationship, revealing both Miguel’s utter disdain and respectful fear of the man, while Niki (Philipp Hochmair) suddenly decides to take the siblings’ reunification as a sign to revive the commune – an idea that the others react to with incredulity.

The mystery behind it all is teased out gradually – and rather skilfully as we are kept guessing for quite a long while – through a combination of present-day clashes and flashbacks to the days of when the siblings were children. The images of the past are filled with light and coloured brightly, in a quality that gives the impression of a home video. But they are also symbolically deceptive, suggesting, at first instance, a blissful childhood in a community of absolute freedom. The excess of light however makes the images hazy and unreal, the ideal life that commune promises never materialising. People are bickering with one another and we observe flashes of jealousy and possessiveness in a place where everything – not just material objects but also partners and children – is meant to be shared.

The siblings, reunited. (Left to right: Miguel, Niki, Kyra, Mizzi.)

The present day echoes the illusion of the idyll as the partners that two of the siblings bring along initially find themselves rather enchanted by the place. Kyra’s boyfriend Vito (Andreas Kiendl) in particular is in disbelief over the fact that his significant other never once returned to this little paradise in the countryside, rather than asking what so grave could have happened for her to stay away that many years. Indeed, it is not just Mizzi that must learn hard truths, but other, even if more minor, storylines feed into the drama. The discoveries of Vito and also Anna (Niki’s wife, played by Marion Mitterhammer) about their partners may in part repercussions of the main conflict, but it is not only secrets of the commune’s past that are revealed to them but issues of now, related to their private affairs – narrative diversions that make the film a more multidimensional and fulfilling experience.

When the truth does come out – and certain twists to that truth – what we learn is not so much surprising as it is revealing in terms of the characters’ actions up to the moment, some of which have to be considered in a new light. Spoiler! In particular, Niki’s fervent desire to reestablish the collective becomes a manifestion of his guilt as he is in fact more aware than anyone that the commune idyll is an unattainable fantasy. /Spoiler

Estranged sisters.

As carefully crafted and compelling as Die Vaterlosen is, the film doesn’t scale all heights to earn a top score. For most viewers, its thematic of ‘growing up in a commune’ will only be alien, the stoned group leader, adorned with Native American Indian headdress, that invites an upset neighbour in for a drink while totally ignoring the complaint addressed to him, can only be a nutter – leaving us with a well-told but ultimately not always very relatable tale.

Overall verdict: While Die Vaterlosen does not provide wider or new insights for the general audience due to the specific and not very relatable scenario explored, it offers a nuanced and carefully meditated reflection on an unusual childhood of absolute freedom, whose chains the now grown-up children are still trying to break.

Rating: 8/10

Bonus Bits: 

  • Die Vaterlosen previously screened at the BFI Film Festival in 2011 and has graced other festivals such as the Berlinale (where it received a special mention from the jury), the Diagonale (Austria) and the LA Film Fest.
  • Currently only a DVD release in German (no subtitles, but All Region DVD coding) is available on amazon.de. If I find a subtitled version in the future, I will add a link.
  • If you would like to attend future Cine Club screenings at the Austrian Cultural Forum London, sign up for their newsletter. Screenings are subtitled and free (booking required). I recommend arriving early to get a good seat – the ACF is a bit hard to find (so easy to get lost!) and the screening room isn’t ideal.
  • The film never specifies the exact setting, but I’m guessing we are some where in the province of Styria, where the director and several of the main actors are from. Andreas Kiendl does a good job pulling off a German accent though!

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