Laura Aikin, Aleksandra Zamojska, and John Malkovich in The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer
Laura Aikin, Aleksandra Zamojska, and John Malkovich in The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer Credit: Olga Martschitsch

During a single four-week period in the spring of 1991, four prostitutes vanished from the typically safe streets of Vienna. After the bodies of two of them turned up in nearby woods, naked, face down, and strangled with their own underwear, people in the Austrian capital, where prostitution is legal, began to fear it was harboring a serial killer.

With the authorities frantically trying to piece things together, the local press began writing about the “Hooker Killer” or “Vienna Strangler.” One of the reporters who showed up at police headquarters to ask how the cases were going was Jack Unterweger, who was covering the startling string of incidents for Austrian public radio. He interviewed the chief investigator as well as prostitutes in the areas the missing women had frequented. He wanted to know how afraid they were.

Unterweger was a celebrity in local literary circles and a darling of Vienna’s cafe society. A slight fellow and dashing dresser, with clean-cut boy-next-door good looks and a charismatic presence, he was a journalist, playwright, poet, novelist, and authority on crime and criminal justice. The last was an expertise he developed while serving a life sentence for the 1974 murder of a young woman, an act he admitted to committing as a callow 24-year-old youth. He’d used the prison library to educate himself, and began writing poetry, plays, and fiction that got the attention of the outside world. Fifty of his children’s stories were broadcast on Austrian radio.

In 1983 Unterweger’s supposedly autobiographical novel,
Fegefeuer (“Purgatory”), was published to wide acclaim. It told how he’d been born to a prostitute who left him with a licentious, abusive grandfather until the state sent him to an unhappy series of foster homes. In his thuggish teens he racked up multiple arrests, including one for assaulting a prostitute, and spent a year in a detention home. But then, so to speak, he caught a break: in the 1970s, when Unterweger entered prison, Austria was energetically revamping its criminal justice system, intent on rehabilitating prisoners. Unterweger, who’d transformed himself into an admired author and was a cause celebre among Austria’s literati (including Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek), became the prime example of the wonders that a “resocialization program” could work. By the time Fegefeuer was made into a movie in 1989, there was widespread support for his release, and in May 1990, after serving 15 years, he was paroled.

He immediately began doing book signings and guest spots on television talk shows (dressed in a signature white suit accented with a bright red rose or scarf) as well as working as a freelance print and broadcast journalist. And he traveled: in September 1990, less than four months after his release, he tooled up to Prague in his BMW for an author’s appearance; a month later he went to the Austrian city of Graz; that December he visited the border town of Bregenz, then made another trip to Graz. Then, in the summer of 1991, he spent a month in Los Angeles, reporting on prostitution, homelessness, and crime there for an Austrian magazine.

As it happened, during his California visit three prostitutes there disappeared and then turned up dead, each strangled with her own bra. Unterweger did multiple interviews with the LA police about the crimes and even snagged a ride-along in a patrol car before heading back to Vienna.

By then all of Austria was on serial-killer alert: a young woman last seen in a bar in Prague had been found strangled, as had two prostitutes in Graz and another in Bregenz, their bras or stockings all tied with the same intricate slipknot around their necks. The police still didn’t have a clue about the killer, but August Schenner, a retired detective in Salzburg, had read about the crimes in the newspaper and been struck by the similarity of these murders to a case he’d worked on two decades earlier, in which a young woman’s body had been found in the woods, her bra wrapped in a stranglehold around her neck. After Schenner checked the date of Unterweger’s release from prison, he felt sure he knew this serial killer’s identity.

The Viennese authorities couldn’t believe it. The celebrity journalist who’d hounded them for not solving the case was their man? But at Schenner’s insistence they interviewed him, eventually searching Unterweger’s apartment and tracking down the series of cars he’d owned and sold. Analysis of three hairs found on a seat from his BMW produced DNA evidence that one of the women had been there; fibers from his red scarf matched those found on the clothing of another victim; travel receipts put him in all the locations where the murders had occurred.

Unterweger fled with an 18-year-old girlfriend, hiding behind a false name but unable to resist the occasional urge to phone an Austrian talk show to plead his innocence. He was captured in Miami Beach and returned to Austria for a trial his defense lawyer characterized as hanging “from a hair.” Charged with the murders of 11 women, he was convicted of nine. On June 29, 1994, just hours after the verdict, he hung himself in his cell with the rope belt from his pants. His noose was reportedly tied with the same knot that had been used on the strangled women.

This weekend, on the stage of Symphony Center, Jack Unterweger will rise again, channeled by the estimable John Malkovich in The Infernal Comedy, a theater piece for actor, two sopranos, and a baroque orchestra. Originally suggested by costume designer Birgit Hutter, who introduced Malkovich to Musica Angelica Baroque director Martin Haselböck, the piece is directed by its author, Michael Sturminger. It combines music by the likes of Gluck, Mozart, and Beethoven with a monologue in which Unterweger returns from the dead to finally tell the truth—or something like it. It had an informal first production in Santa Monica in 2008 under the title Seduction and Despair; fine-tuned since then, it’s had more than 80 international performances.

Sturminger, on the phone from Vienna last week, said it’s a story about the search for the truth, a character study, and an attempt to give the audience “the same experience the Austrian public had, of being impressed, charmed, and entertained” by this character, whom “you don’t like, but you appreciate.”

“There might be people who hate it, or think it’s too light or superficial,” Sturminger says. “But it starts funny and light because, I think, to get people moved, you have to open them.

“We open the people’s hearts, entertain them with some easy jokes, and before they really know where they are, they’re in the middle of the story . . . and it’s getting so strangely brutal and horrible. They have no chance to make sure they don’t care. And I think that’s the only way you can approach it. Because if you look at a story about a serial killer and you don’t care, that would be exploiting it.

“In a way, it hurts, and I think it’s very important that it hurts. Some people think it’s all too much. There’s always a few who are leaving. I understand this and respect it. But at the same time, if it doesn’t get close to the line where we say it’s too much, that would be minimizing it. It is about a killer, so it shouldn’t be too nice.”