The jailing of Josef Fritzl this week for the 24-year imprisonment and multiple rape of his daughter has left Austrian authorities with a litany of serious questions to answer
FAIRY TALES usually end with evil banished and the hero and heroine living happily ever after.
But when Josef Fritzl’s trial ended after four dismal days on Thursday, a haze of horror lingered over events that surpass the worst snuff film or penny dreadful.
We had our fairy tale villain who banished his daughter to the cellar for 24 years and subjected her to the kind of horrors the Brothers Grimm never dreamed of.
There were three children separated from their mother, raised by a grandfather who was actually their father while, three floors below, three siblings who had never seen daylight cowered in the damp dungeon.
Rounding out the grim, real-life tale were two miscarriages and a dead baby flung, with a nod to Hansel and Gretel, into a roaring furnace.
But, at the 11th hour, the villain’s daughter summoned up the strength to send events in an unexpected direction.
From nowhere, Elisabeth Fritzl appeared in the otherwise empty public gallery on Tuesday as her video testimony played in court.
Gazing at her tormentor, she heard her own voice say: “I screamed many times during those long years, but no one ever heard.”
A short, silent glance between the two was all it took for the father, who had dominated his daughter with a single-minded obsession for a quarter of a century, to finally crack.
Thursday’s life sentence is the closest Elisabeth Fritzl and her family will come to a happy-ever-after ending. But a closer reading of the Fritzl story this week begs the question: was justice done?
This week’s final chapter began where it ended last April: in Amstetten, a town with a population of 14,000 halfway down the road between Vienna and Salzburg.
A year after their neighbour Josef Fritzl brought the world’s media down on them, the residents of this unremarkable town have got their story straight.
Journalists asking about their infamous neighbour are to be informed in clear terms that Fritzl is not real, not one of them, but a hate figure created by the media, perhaps the British tabloids.
“That man doesn’t exist for me,” says one woman as she leaves the bakery in Ybsstrasse where Fritzl brought bread rolls for his families.
Fritzl’s neighbours, who let camera teams film from their roof last April, are highly indignant when the same media organisations came knocking this week.
“Is this really necessary?” asked a woman passing the grey, abandoned Fritzl house where leaflets from the overflowing letter box rattle around the porch. “When will it end?”
On a grey Monday morning at 8am, a crowd is milling around the Jugendstil courthouse in the Lower Austria provincial capital of St Pölten.
The car park is packed with satellite transmission trucks and the journalists with coveted court passes disappear inside. The rest remain outside watch the unfolding circus.
A man representing an organisation called “Opfer Offensive” (Victim Offensive) has shown up with four bloody baby dolls bound to an outsized crucifix.
“Josef Fritzl is in every one of us,” shouts the beret-wearing protester.
Soon, three other human and animal rights groups have shown up with similar intentions, identical blood-soaked dolls and banners reading “Austria’s Shame” and “Children’s Rights in the Constitution”.
Everyone with something to say is right here, including a man handing out brown envelopes and promising journalists, for a small fee, “the truth about opera star Anna Netrebko and the CIA”.
Anticipating just this kind of circus, Austria’s leading Krone tabloid expressed its sympathies on Monday with the residents of St. Pölten, famed in Austria for its wine and the decade-long Red Army occupation until 1955.
“Faced with the choice of the Russkies then or the world’s media now, I’d be hard pressed to decide,” remarks the Krone columnist.
The general mood in St Pölten is clear: like the Fritzl “Incest Monster”, the related media circus is an unwelcome foreign import.
LET’S JUST FORGET for a moment the Austrian protesters outside the court, the titillating reports in sold-out Austrian tabloids and the Austrian man outside the courthouse offering for sale pictures of Elisabeth Fritzl and her family.
And please ignore entirely the rotund woman with the short grey hair who appears outside the courthouse at 8.30am. “I was in the area and thought I’d stop by,” says Fritzl’s sister-in-law Christine, somewhat disingenuously. She’s been “bought up” by a news channel as an exclusive commentator for the trial.
The calm of the court 119 is a world away from the media circus. The vaulted ceilings, wood panelled walls and crucifix seem far too respectable the stage for the seedy tale about to be told.
The main attraction arrives in a hushed silence, broken only by whirring of cameras. When he finally lowers the royal blue folder hiding his face, the effects of a year in prison on Fritzl are clear.
The Jack Nicholson-like insolent eyes of last year’s mugshot are gone: the wan-faced man facing the bench looks more like a bedraggled brother of Vincent Prince in his final years.
The opening arguments pass quickly with state prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser using her 33 years to remind the jury of just how long Elisabeth’s ordeal lasted.
“This began when I was just a little girl, just so high,” she says, gesturing to her waist as eyes widen in the jury box.
In one sentence she sums up Elisabeth Fritzl’s life since 1988 in the mouldy cellar: “Light off. Rape. Light On. Mould. Light off. Rape. Light on. Mould. Light off. Rape.”
In her final summing up, she urges the jury to deliver a severe sentence: “Don’t be taken in by him as Elisabeth was.”
Defence attorney Rudolf Mayer’s half-hearted opening remarks, asking jurors to view the accused as a man not a monster, is soon lost in three days of gruelling testimony.
The jury’s verdict – guilty on all eight counts and a life sentence – suggests the four men and four women were in little doubt about their feelings towards Fritzl.
The person who did most to attempt to explain Fritzl to them was court psychiatrist Adelheid Kastner, whose compelling evidence added important contours to the caricature of Fritzl as a fairy tale villain.
Dr Kastner pointed to his troubled relationship with his mother Maria, who claimed never to have wanted him.
“Mr Fritzl lacked a lot of things people need to become empathetic, loving persons. The only emotion he knew was fear for his mother and fear of his mother,” she said.
Particularly traumatic for him was how, during the second World War, Maria put Fritzl for hours at a time in their airraid shelter during allied bombings while remaining upstairs herself.
Fritzl remembered lying awake all night wondering if she was still alive and if anyone would come to let him out.
The cellar he later built under the family home, to which only he had access, may have been an attempt to compensate with this earlier trauma, Dr Kastner said.
Fritzl’s sardonic remark that he was “born to rape” was, she said, rooted in an overriding desire to exert the same control over others that he lacked in his childhood relationship to his mother.
In Fritzl’s mind, she said, true love could not exist without exerting full control. Her verdict was clear: though he is not insane, Josef Fritzl is seriously, perhaps hopelessly disturbed.
“As long as he has a sex drive he will continue to have the desire to control people,” she said. “And since he has suffered this disorder for decades it will be correspondingly hard to treat.”
With Thursday’s verdict, Fritzl is likely to spend the rest of his days in a secure psychiatric facility of an Austrian prison.
The decision to have closed, swift court proceedings was an understandable measure to protect the Fritzl family from further humiliation and trauma. But it had the unfortunate side effect of leaving this Fritzl tale with loose ends.
The greatest unanswered question surrounds Rosemarie Fritzl. Police admit she has never been questioned in depth about her husband’s 24-year deception.
A leading Amstetten police official told The Irish Times: “The crime is so unthinkable that it is wholly unthinkable that she could have known about it.”
Meanwhile, Thursday’s verdict raises further questions about the local police in Amstetten.
They arrived at their first press conference last April flashing a police photograph of Fritzl, giving his full name and referring to him during the press conference as “the perpetrator”.
Asked why they were not referring to him as “the accused”, police said it was because Fritzl had “confessed to everything”.
The police changed their tune before this week’s trial, issuing stern warnings to the Austrian media that using Fritzl’s full name or the names of his victims in their reports would result in €20,000 fines.
Official concern about “victim protection” sounded rather hollow considering how, in the run-up to the trial, dozens of court documents filled with humiliating details about Elisabeth’s imprisonment were leaked to the Austrian media.
SO FAR AUSTRIAN authorities have shown little interest in investigating the origin of the leaks, although the perpetrator is known to all.
Some Austrian commentators warned this week that the heavy-handed approach to “victim protection” could arouse suspicions that it was being used to cover up police failings in the investigation.
It would not be the first time the Austrian authorities have failed Elisabeth Fritzl.
Three decades ago, social services failed to notice the cry for help of an abused teenager who ran away from home to escape her father’s sexual abuse. She was brought home by police to Fritzl, a pillar of the community and a friend of the mayor.
It is still unclear why, at that time and after Elisabeth’s later disappearance, authorities in Amstetten never doubted the increasingly fanciful tales of a man convicted of rape in the 1960s.
The unanswered questions remain and, judging from the frosty attitudes in Austria this week, there appears little interest at the moment in filling in the blanks.
Nor is there any interest in a deeper discussion, about whether the country fosters a look-the-other-way attitude, a culture of non-interference.
Many people here feel bruised by what they view as “Austria-bashing” in the international media.
That defensiveness is understandable, particularly after assertions in British newspapers that the Fritzl case was “typically Austrian”.
That claim was dented somewhat with last November’s conviction of a Sheffield man for fathering his daughters’ seven children by rape over 25 years.
That Austrian touchiness to the British media returned this week, an understandable reaction considering the two versions of the Fritzl trial reported by them.
The huge media interest meant that only a third of the journalists who descended on St Pölten were allowed into the courtroom for the few open sessions.
The Irish Times was the only Irish media outlet issued with a pass, while court spokesman Franz Cutka joked that he admitted just two British newspapers, the Guardian and the Sun, “to have the best and worst of the British press represented”.
Not being admitted to the court didn’t stop the absent Fleet Street hacks drawing on their fertile imaginations to pen gripping courtroom sketches, with a well-thumbed thesaurus providing more synonyms for “cellar” and “evil” than anyone thought possible.
The British media excesses may have done a disservice to Austria, but could the Austrians be doing themselves some damage with their defensive reaction?
Is it fair to blame the world’s media for a home-grown criminal? Is it unpatriotic to be concerned about the lack of interest in investigating possible lapses in this extraordinary case?
And finally: where is Austria’s outrage at its hypocritical officials who were entrusted with guarding Elisabeth Fritzl’s privacy but who in fact sold off the most humiliating details of her 24-year ordeal?
TIMETABLE OF ABUSE
AUGUST 28, 1984
Elisabeth Fritzl (18) was sedated, handcuffed and locked in the cellar of her family's home by her father. A month after her disappearance, a letter written by Elisabeth Fritzl surfaces, asking her parents not to search for her.
Her eldest child, Kerstin, is born in the cellar, followed by Stefan.
Fritzl and his wife, Rosemarie, tell authorities they found two of Elisabeth Fritzl's children outside their home.
Elisabeth Fritzl gives birth to twins, but one dies several days later. The body is allegedly removed from the cellar and burnt by Fritzl. The surviving twin, Alexander, is later taken to live upstairs.
Fritzl is claimed to have gone on holiday to Thailand for a month, leaving his hidden family with food supplies while he is away.
Elizabeth Fritzl has another child, Felix, who is brought up in the cellar with Kerstin and Stefan.
APRIL 19, 2008
Kerstin (19) is found unconscious and gravely ill and is taken to hospital. Authorities publicly appeal for her mother to come forward.
APRIL 26, 2008
Police pick up Elizabeth Fritzl and her father near the hospital, and he later frees the captive children, now aged five to 19. He admits to police he locked his daughter in the cellar, raped her and that he is the father of her children.
MAY 8, 2008
Fritzl insists he did his best to care for his daughter and their children. In an interview passed to an Austrian magazine by his lawyer, he said he "must have been crazy" to imprison Elisabeth for 24 years and said he took books and toys to the children.
JUNE 10, 2008
Doctors treating Kerstin Fritzl say she has woken from her coma and left intensive care.
OCTOBER 15, 2008
Prosecutors declare Fritzl mentally fit to stand trial.
MARCH 16, 2009
Fritzl goes on trial facing charges of murder, rape, incest, coercion, false imprisonment and enslavement. He covers his face with a blue file. Initially he pleads guilty to rape, incest and false imprisonment, but denies homicide and enslavement charges.
MARCH 17, 2009
The court is told Fritzl used his daughter Elisabeth "like his property" after imprisoning her.
MARCH 18, 2009
Fritzl changes his plea to guilty of all counts. He says his change of heart is caused by watching Elisabeth's video evidence. Sources close to the case reveal she attended the first two days of the trial.