Austrian director Marie Kreutzer’s The Fatherless (Die Vaterlosen), one of the films entered in this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival’s narrative competition, explores how children raised in a totally unstructured environment can suffer as much emotional damage as children brought up in an authoritarian household. Four siblings converge on a isolated house in the Austrian countryside after the family patriarch Hans (Johannes Krisc) passes away, with only his “adopted” physician son Niki (Philipp Hochmair) present when he dies. Through flashbacks, it’s revealed that Hans was the leader of a free-love hippie commune in the 1980s and fathered children with different women. He finally settled down with Anna (Marion Mitterhammer) who lived with him until his death.
The setup seems somewhat clichéd, as one by one, the rest of Niki’s siblings arrive at the house. There’s something off about these siblings – they hardly seem to recognize each other. During the first third of the film, it’s a little difficult to determine who the characters are and their relation to each other. Are they brother and sisters, half-siblings, friends, acquaintances? It’s hard to tell. The characters themselves aren’t even sure at first, and they open up to each other bit by bit.
The central story concerns estranged sister Kyra (Andrea Wenzl), who hasn’t seen her siblings for 23 years. She bears a bitter grudge against Hans, though it’s not apparent why at first. When Mizzi (Emily Cox) meets Kyra, she is anxious to learn more about her estranged sister.
The family spends a few days together while waiting for Hans’ funeral. Leisurely dinners and wine-laced chats soon give way to long-buried memories of chaotic scenes at the communal dinner table and Hans’ selfish motives.
Idealistic brother Vito (Andreas Kiendl) takes over the house-repair duties, and his attempts to rally the family together meets resistance. Meanwhile, Anna’s altruistic demeanor cracks and she spills some secrets of her own.
Kreutzer’ s meticulously paced script focuses on developing the characters as individuals. Enough information is revealed to keep us hooked until the siblings unravel several childhood mysteries, including the origin of Mizzi’s neurological disorder. All the usual props-scrapbooks, diaries, letters, even cassette tapes are employed to delineate family events. They’re subtle lead-ins to exposition that springs naturally from the characters.
The Fatherless examines the social and emotional effects of a communal upbringing on children. Instead of exploring the politics of this subject, the emphasis is on how such an atmosphere affects the individual. How did the parents’ freeform, laissez faire attitude shape the children’s identity and sense of family as they grew into adults?
The ensemble cast handles the emotionally charged material with aplomb. Wenzl gives Kyra just the right mix of willfulness, anger and composure. Portraying a character with such a complex history with going “over the top” was surely a hard task, but this young actress approaches it admirably. The rural Austrian landscape is lovingly photographed, in contrast to the VHS-quality look of the 1980s commune flashbacks. The Fatherless is an impressive debut from director Kreutzer, who approaches a difficult subject with sensitivity and skill.
*The Fatherless was filmed in German with English subtitles.