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True-Crime Character: John Malkovich as Jack Unterweger (writer, serial killer, and all around creepy dude)

Hill Auditorium is not a typical setting for a piece of theatre.  After the lights go down, it’s mainly a great big sound box.  Hmmm, let’s see, is there any way you could actually get people to look at the stage, instead of sliding down in their seats for an excellently sound-tracked doze?

How about you put John Malkovich up there with a Dr. Strangelove accent, doing that snakey walk of his around a forty-piece orchestra and strangling a couple of sopranos with brassieres while they sing Mozart lieder? That roadshow actually exists and is coming to Hill Auditorium on October 1 at 8 pm. The show is called The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer, a performance piece in which Malkovich plays a real person, Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger.

Written by Michael Sturminger, what happens onstage appears to be mostly a fictional delving into Unterweger’s brain, though had Unterweger not dispatched himself in 1994, he might well have written it himself.  As a theatrical concept, it’s hands-down brilliant.  Forget Unterweger for a minute. It seems to me that for a small European country, Austria has produced disquieting amounts of both sublime beauty and creepiness.  The Infernal Comedy sounds like the answer to some challenge like: “explain, in a performance piece, what’s the deal with Austria?”

As for Unterweger himself, who, I almost want to say, never got the fame he deserved, you can read a full account of him in John Leake’s Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2007).  Briefly, young punk Unterweger was sentenced to life in prison in 1975 for murdering a young woman. While in prison, he educated and redeemed himself, writing prose and poetry that dazzled the high literati of Austria. They in turn pressured the court system to pardon him in 1990. The now urbane and educated Unterweger immediately became a celebrity journalist, specializing in reporting on prostitute murders.  Oddly, it took the Austrian gendarmerie a while to remember that Austria didn’t really have a problem with prostitute murders until Unterweger started reporting on them. He was caught, tried, and hanged himself on the way to prison.

A few days ago, I talked to Gregg Barak, professor of criminology at EMU, about Unterweger.  He began by throwing me a curveball about my use of the term “psychopath” to describe him.

“Absolutely not a psychopath,” insists Barak, “and neither was Ted Bundy, for that matter.” This shakes the bedrock upon which my, and perhaps your, notions of sexual serial killer crime are founded.  Barak’s argument is dense and complex, and deserves a fuller airing than I can give here.  Instead, I’ll just pick out a few other standout comments from our conversation.

Unterweger was, says Barak, the smartest, most fascinating serial killer ever, bar none.  “How many go to prison and say: ‘I’m going to write my way out of here.’?” he asks.  “Probably a pretty high percentage. How many actually do?” And not just with some one-note self-absorbed autobiography, like Jack Abbott (better remembered as an uncomfortable moment in Norman Mailer’s life). Unterweger, says Barak, “was writing in all genres: fiction, poetry, plays, childrens’ literature.”  As evidence of his highly organized, complex, and multilayered mind, Barak notes: “he was having straight sex, kinky sex, and killer sex, all during the same period of time.”

U-M Students who want to hear more of Barak’s line of argument can hear him talk at the Arts & Eats pre-show event on October 1.  Others can read one of his books or snag him — he’s a pretty personable guy — at intermission.