At first glance, Peter Liechti’s new film Father’s Garden – The Love of My Parents (Vaters garten – Die Liebe meiner Eltern), is a documentary about a Swiss couple, approaching their nineties. Very ordinary people living a trivial life, saying nothing of importance or interest. They may even look dull to an outsider. And yet, Liechti’s film is fascinating: a rich and multilayered portrayal of old age, gender differences, the generation gap, religious fanaticism and unfulfilled life. It also says a lot about an unhappy marriage kept faithful through the years in spite of this, and about two people bound together by a need for each other – as seen through the eyes of Liechti.
No wonder the starting point of this very subjective portrayal of Papi und Mami was a brief encounter between the director and his father. For many years they did not meet in public. A chance meeting on the street, three years ago, was very embarrassing for both of them. While wondering why his father couldn’t embrace him in public, Liechti decided to make a film about his elderly parents, trying to understand the nature of their intimacy after 62 years of marriage. His exploration reveals not only the dynamics of marriage, but also the reasons why father and son are so detached. While trying to figure out why he has evaded emotional involvement with his parents, Liechti conveys, between the frames, a secret love for them, as well as profound existential pain over what their lives turned out to be.
Liechti constructs the 93-minute film on two parallel axes. On the first axis, he brings his camera into his parents’ small apartment, to his father’s very well maintained and symbolic garden, and occasionally to the parents’ local residential environment: barbershop, supermarket, a bus. The film was shot over a year, beginning in the summer of 2010; Liechti did about twenty interviews with his parents Max and Hedi. The second axis consists of a small, bare puppet theatre stage, where two puppeteers operate a male and a female bunny. They represent Max, who is usually at the front of the stage (and in the foreground of the frame, as he is in “real” photography), while Hedi remains mostly in the background. Opposite them is another puppet, with a human face, representing Liechti who directs them, asks questions and sometimes goes berserk, reacting to the ridiculous way his parents perceive themselves. Through the puppets’ body language, and the way they move in the small theatre space, Liechti conveys some of his own feelings, as well as his parents’ unspoken emotions.
And thus, through banal shots of everyday life – reading the bible, arranging pills in boxes, preparing lunch in the kitchen, watching television – Licheti reveals step by step what made him so detached from his parents and what he means by the secondary title The Love of My Parents.
As a family, there were always three corners: father, mother and son. Each lived in a separate world. “There was never a real harmony”, Hedi confesses to the camera. It could be the fast changes of time, the older generation who was not prepared for the rebellion of the younger generation. It could be the rigid father, who never wore a T-shirt or jeans, and had the same haircut for seventy years. He could never accept the young rebel growing up under his roof, with his long hair and heavy metal music (playing on the soundtrack), was always ashamed of what people would say about his son. Neither Max nor Peter was ever flexible enough to build a bridge between them. Both parents were always full of apprehension and anxiety whenever they met with the grown-up Peter. Every meeting turned out a disaster: arguing, quarrelling; Peter always gave his parents the feeling that everything they did was wrong.
And, of course, there is Max’s stiff, proud personality. In the first half of the film, Liechti creates the impression that his father was almost inhuman. We see how Max is obsessed with keeping everything in order. That’s the way he was brought up, always in the old fashioned Swiss self-control. More than once Liechti insinuates that Max is a Swiss archetype. In a poignant scene, Liechti asks about his father’s service during World War II, guarding the closed borders from refugees, condemning them to be sent back to the death camps.
It is an excellent portrait of a man who very consciously, and in a very direct way, declares that his vocation and job in life is to maintain order. In his office, in the garden, in his family life, everything must be by the book. He feels lost if he is not in control. His appearance in the eyes of other people is of utmost importance. Maintaining the routine is obligatory. He doesn’t like to travel, always stays with the same friends. He needs a quiet, ordinary life, with no surprises. That is why his garden becomes a visual symbol for a pedantic, very formal, very bureaucratic perception of life – and of great pride in the achievement of such order.
Max and his wife are basically different. Both of them admit it very openly. She liked to travel, he didn’t. She reads a lot, he reads only the daily newspapers. He likes to meet his friends in the local club, or in the Gymnasium. She likes to be alone. But is there more behind this image of opposites? Perhaps Max shut Hedi out by never being able to express his inner world. We discover that they never really spoke to each other: he was either busy at the office, spending time with friends or working the garden. “Always the garden,” says Hedi, “Running away from my demands, from my dreams: Florence, the Acropolis, Michelangelo…”
Some of the most hilarious scenes in the film revolve around gender. Max refers to the Bible when he speaks about the roles of wife and husband. He declares: “the Bible says that the woman has to do the housekeeping – cleaning, cooking, raising children. That’s her job. If she goes to work and the husband manages the household, it’s unnatural. By her nature, woman is weaker…” Hedi admits she always felt useless: first in the eyes of her mother, then with her selfish, handsome husband. And yet, Peter Liechti succeeds in conveying his mother’s unspoken bitterness when she says: “women can make a suggestion, but it’s the husband who is the master of the house. The wife accepts everything, to avoid a row…” Liechti ironically repeats throughout the film the image of Hedi’s Sisyphean ironing Max’s shirts.
In a touching moment she confesses that when she could not defend herself anymore, eventually she let go. Although she fell into depression for a while, Hedi decided not to commit suicide like both her brother and sister. She found faith, the Bible and Jesus. As Max put more and more effort into his garden on earth, Hedi gradually began to believe in the Garden of Eden. Both are very proud of their private gardens. It is in this second half of the film, that Peter Liechti becomes more sarcastic towards his mother’s religious world, just as he was nasty to his father’s patriarchal ideas at the beginning of the film.
And yet, beyond the harsh attitude, the mockery, the ridicule, we feel between the frames Liechti’s cry for love, for warmth, to be accepted by his parents. It is astonishing how, by describing everyday banal life, in a somewhat conventional cinematic style, the filmmaker achieves such an abundant and meaningful documentary. One can’t help wondering whether this is actually Peter’s way of beginning a real dialogue with Max and Hedi. Sadly, he is again unable to close the gap between them. It is with this yearning, and sadness, that one leaves Father’s Garden. A small, last hope remains – that watching the finished film, distances decades old may begin to be bridged.
Yehuda Stav, Israel