Director: Christopher Roth (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
Austria, the late 1980s. An island (or is it a peninsula?) near the Hungarian border. We start in the middle of some sort of hippie gathering – those acoustic guitars are a giveaway – although it’s not exactly clear what is happening. The meeting is led by a woman, who at first introduces various insurance salesmen, who are lauded for the number of sales that they have made. Each one is singled out for applause by a song seemingly written for them on the spot.
But then, the mood suddenly changes. The chairwoman picks out Holger who is accused of having feelings of love for Simone. This is a commune where all thoughts of the bourgeois family are forbidden. Sex is ok, encouraged even. Only the women have bedrooms, and the men must sleep with a different woman every night (for all the sexual libertinism, it seems to be a very heterosexual set up). As Holger had transgressed against these rules, he must be banished.
Simone is given a second chance as a reward for dobbing Holger in, But she must first endure a ritual humiliation, at the hands of a man with wild, staring eyes, who we later learn to be Otto, the “king” of the commune. Otto beats her and reduces her to a state of hysteria before he has the whole group chanting that her father is at fault. Otto then sinks to the floor and starts emitting wild animal sounds. The audience, meanwhile, is thinking “What the fuck is going on here?”
Jeanne and her sister Julie have lived in the commune nearly all their lives. Their parents live in a different commune in Frankfurt-Main, as adults are separated from their kids. Sugar and chewing gum are banned, as is “anything that’s fun”. On the occasional times when their mother is allowed to visit, she sneaks in sachets of sugar for Jeanne to hide under her clothing. But it’s not all grim. Jeanne enjoys the company of butterflies and horses and the outdoor painting lessons.
Jeanne falls in love with Jean, thus breaking the central rule of the commune. Sex is encouraged, but love is forbidden. Yet the commune is struggling to deal with the growing sexual awareness of its pubescent members. Kids who reach 16 are sent away – a fate given to Jean. But while the adults swap bedrooms, a certain chastity is expected from the young teenagers. Well, up to the point at which Otto starts to visit Jeanne in her bedroom.
The communes were a perverted response by Germany’s post-war generation to come to terms with the sins of its parents. Instead of the Nazis’ strict regulation of sexuality, free love is imposed from above. This was, in effect, just as much an attack on individual sexual autonomy. Yet the communes were also symbols of bourgeois respectability, showing just how far you were allowed to rebel. In the film, the commune is visited by both the artist Joseph Beuys and an SPÖ politician.
If the film does have a message it seems to be one of extreme liberalism – don’t go too far as this will just mean that you encourage new hierarchies. It does not have a very favourable view of human nature. Director Roth earlier made a film about Andreas Baader, which I haven’t seen, but I would guess that It combined a sympathy for Baader’s left-wing inspirations with a horror that he turned into a dangerous megalomaniac.
The film often mentions the DDR, which was falling apart at the same time. Every so often we hear radio reports of the events which were leading up to the fall of the Berlin wall. I guess that this is more than just adding a certain historic authenticity. It feels like Roth is trying to make some point here, maybe comparing the communes’ utopian search for equality with equivalent attempts in the East. But everything is too vague, and it’s not clear which comparison is being made.
Servus Papa suffers from being based on a real story which, while being shocking, just isn’t dramatic enough. For most of the film, everybody accepts Otto’s rule, then suddenly they don’t. This may well be what happened in real life, and fits the timing of a book. But for a 2 hour film, the sudden change in tone is not very interesting. For most of the film, you’re wondering just exactly where is this taking us. Then suddenly you’re there without having time to appreciate the journey.
To its credit, the film holds back from judging its characters. The commune seems to be simultaneously idyllic – giving Jeanne the chance to convene with nature – and horrific. It is only when Jeanne comes into contact with people from outside that she hears that they all refer to her home as the “sex commune”. Having lived there since she was 2 years old, she knows nothing different, and the “real” world is not without its problems.
I’m sure that some people will find Servus Papa to be fantastic, and others just won’t get on board. I fell somewhere in between. It addresses an interesting subject, but never really seems able to treat it with the incisiveness that it deserves. On the whole, it’s an ambitious failure. It didn’t quite achieve what it was trying to do, but better give it a go than to give us another bland recount of the same old middle class dilemmas. Ultimately a little disappointing, but good that it tried.