Becoming unhinged all over again
THE VERY first time John Malkovich set eyes on Jack Unterweger, it was in the early 1990s and the celebrity model of rehabilitation was being interviewed on a television chat show.
“I have a memory of his creamy-ish white suit, a black and white polka-dot polyester stretch shirt, loafers and gold chains – convict paraphernalia,” the actor recalls.
Unterweger was talking about his prison past – he had been convicted of murdering a woman in 1976 – and his subsequent rehabilitation into Austrian society by the Viennese cafe intellectuals who campaigned for his early release, leading to a pardon from the president at the time, Kurt Waldheim.
“At the time I didn’t get it; I wondered why people believed in someone who was so obviously fake, so obviously lying,” says Malkovich. “Only years later did the real story come out.”
The real story, which Malkovich brings to a Vienna stage in an opera-chamber theatre production which premiered this week, was that Unterweger, the reformed prisoner turned celebrated poet and journalist, had begun a brutal killing spree within six months of his release.
“When I saw him, he was well into the planning stages. He committed three murders in the first year he was out,” says Malkovich.
Between 1990 and 1993, Unterweger murdered 11 prostitutes in Vienna, Prague and Los Angeles, strangling them with a self-styled ligature constructed from his victims’ bra straps.
At the same time, his books – including his celebrated autobiography Purgatory – were being taught in schools, his children’s stories were performed on the radio and, as a journalist for the state broadcaster, he was reporting on the very crime wave for which he was responsible.
He was even sent by an Austrian magazine to Los Angeles to write a comparable reportage piece on the situation there.
“He came to write about the terrible conditions American prostitutes have because they don’t have a union at all,” says Malkovich, who plays Unterweger in The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer. “But, of course, he didn’t necessarily improve their conditions because, you know, he killed them all after he’d interviewed them.
“But he got what he wanted – a free trip to California to kill some hookers and make himself a little more famous and known and thoughtful.”
Malkovich, who 10 years ago began a project to make a film about Unterweger, was drawn to the subject after being struck by the similarities between the Austrian and Jack Henry Abbott, who turned into a prison literary sensation after the 1981 publication of In the Belly of the Beast, his account of life in a US penitentiary where he was serving a sentence for murder.
Just as Unterweger was championed by myriad writers such as the Nobel prize-winners Elfriede Jelinek and Günter Grass, Abbott was lauded by his country’s literati, including Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, whose support of him also led to his early release. Six weeks later, he bludgeoned a man to death.
Martin Haselböck, musical director of The Infernal Comedy, who met Unterweger during one of his prison readings, explained the murderer’s acceptance into the establishment as a sign of the times. “It epitomised the thinking at the time that art is stronger than crime and the far-too liberal idea that everybody can be changed.”
He said he expected the audience to be made up of a “strange mix” of Unterweger admirers, fans of Malkovich and opera lovers. “There are the Unterweger fans who are still out there, mainly women, many of whom still claim his innocence.”
The Infernal Comedy, which is due to transfer to Spain, France and next year to London, concludes with Unterweger’s declaration: “I’m longing for the truth as much as you are,” followed by his suicide.
He took his life the night after he was convicted of nine murders by a Graz court.
Malkovich, who is used to playing film characters that are menacing and alluring, said he found Unterweger “haunting and tragic. I can find him so touching that I can’t even talk when I get on stage,” he said.
Describing The Infernal Comedy as a “lesson in being careful about what you wish for”, Malkovich adds: “It is a cautionary tale about where our projected fantasies of redemption hurl themselves, out into the night, not knowing if the ground is 10 inches below or 200 storeys. I’d be shocked if those who supported him haven’t shown some remorse.”
– Guardian service
Culture Shock will return next week