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'The Infernal Comedy' raises questions about Austria's soul

The stage production is about Jack Unterweger, who was a darling of the nation's elite and a cold-blooded killer.

July 24, 2009|Kate Connolly

VIENNA — Playing a notorious Austrian serial killer has not been an easy task even for John Malkovich, who is used to unconventional roles. Sometimes, he says, he has "had to kind of choke myself to go on."

Interesting choice of words for an actor playing a man convicted in 1994 of strangling nine prostitutes. The production is the baroque opera and theater collaboration "The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer," about journalist Jack Unterweger, who was championed by Austrian intellectuals.

Stirring up unsettling questions about the Austrian character, the production completed a successful run in Unterweger's hometown after a brief tryout, titled "Seduction and Despair," in Santa Monica last year. It has begun touring venues across Europe.

"There was plenty of material out there and it's easily the stuff of opera, so it made a smooth transition to the stage," Malkovich says in an interview between rehearsals at the Ronacher Theater, which is a stone's throw from the Gurtel, where most of the city's sex workers are concentrated and where Unterweger picked up several of his victims.

Dressed in the cream suit and polka-dot shirt that were part of Unterweger's trademark playboy look, Malkovich strokes the throat of soprano Aleksandra Zamojska and intones in a gravelly, Austrian-accented drawl: "And there is a murdered hooker lying naked, face in the mud, somewhere in the Vienna woods, strangled with her own bra."

His monologue is punctuated with arias by, among others, Weber, Haydn and Beethoven, which give voice to the tortured women. But all in all it is chilling fare, and it was met with a mixed response by Austrian critics and commentators, some of whom have accused the production of glamorizing the man the city's coffeehouse intellectuals once took to their bosom.

"Jack Unterweger was the darling of Viennese society and appears to be so still today," critic Thomas Jorda wrote in the newspaper Niederoesterreichische Nachrichten. "When he is represented by Mr. Malkovich on stage as he strangles prostitutes with their bras, he can continue to be sure of being able to count on this society's applause."

Indeed, the Vienna audience "consisted of a number of Unterweger admirers -- people, mainly women, who still believe in his innocence," said the artistic director, Martin Haselboeck, who also heads the Musica Angelica baroque orchestra in Los Angeles.

Unterweger, who was locked up in 1976 for murdering a woman, learned to read and write in jail. He was crowned "prison poet" by intellectuals such as Nobel laureate and Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek when his book "Purgatory" (a purported autobiography that turned out to be fictional) was published.

He was granted a presidential pardon in 1990 by Kurt Waldheim (whose own career was overshadowed by the revelations that he served as an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht, a German unit that committed atrocities in World War II), whereupon he began killing prostitutes in Vienna, Prague and Los Angeles. At the same time, he worked as a journalist for the Austrian state broadcaster and for print news media, which enabled him to report in detail on his own macabre crimes.

Unterweger, who hanged himself the night of his conviction, was the most notorious criminal in modern Austria -- until he was usurped by Wolfgang Priklopil, the computer technician who kidnapped a 10-year-old and held her captive for eight years, committing suicide on her escape in 2006. Those grisly episodes, together with the nation's decades-long suppression of its overwhelming support for Adolf Hitler when Austria was incorporated into the Third Reich, raise the question of whether there is something particularly Austrian in the way the country appears to suppress rather than confront the truth.

"Suppression is central to our national character," says Michael Sturminger, the scriptwriter of "The Infernal Comedy." "Think of the Third Reich: Of course people should have known what was happening, but there were people who said they didn't know and people who didn't want to know."

But Malkovich is cautious about drawing conclusions.

"This story is in itself so Austrian and Viennese," he says. "The more you suppress things, the more likely you are to turn into a sociopath.

"But I believe that Austria would have to do quite a lot to catch up with the Belgians. And we Americans don't do too badly in this regard."

What fascinates him more is the ability of serial killers to seduce.

"I once met a baroness who owned land in what used to be Prussia, where [Hitler's No. 2 Hermann] Goering went hunting every season," Malkovich says, twisting a sugar sachet between his fingers. "I said: 'How was he?' She said: 'Oh, he was so utterly charming, a lovely man.'

"Well of course they are," he says. "How do you think they get where they get to?"

--

Connolly is a special correspondent.

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