It’s hard to effectively portray killers on stage or screen. To authenticate the performance, one needs to leave behind exaggeration and devilish smirks, otherwise the character will seem too villainous. A bad guy doesn’t always know he is a bad guy, and this makes playing one a difficult endeavor.
In The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer, John Malkovich, who has made a career out of playing nasty beings, takes on the role of Jack Unterweger, the Austrian serial killer who had one of the most surreal lives of any notorious criminal. Not only did he kill a multitude of women, but he was actually pardoned for his crimes and released from jail. After regaining his freedom, he gained notoriety, became a journalist and all seemed to be well in the world. That is, until Unterweger continued to kill unsuspecting women. He was eventually caught and committed suicide after his conviction.
Unterweger’s story is so odd and sensational that it seems a perfect fit for dramatization. Michael Sturminger wrote and directed a 100-minute play featuring the serial killer in a posthumous discussion with the audience over his forthcoming autobiography. He’s making a pitch: Buy my book and you will find out the truth.
Malkovich plays Unterweger with a detached sense of reality. He delivers his lines in a staccato fashion, obviously trying to replicate Unterweger’s difficulty with the English language. This makes the dialogue very simple and sometimes even grammatically incorrect. However, The Infernal Comedy is always insightful. We’re not simply listening to a bunch of war stories about the character’s terrible misgivings or penchant for destruction. We watch Unterweger in a different mode, almost like he’s a salesman and we’re the potential customer. He’s selling us his life, and it’s up to us whether or not to buy it.
The Infernal Comedy has played around the world, most recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For the recent DVD release from Arthaus Musik, Malkovich and company were filmed at Vienna’s Ronacher Theater. The camerawork is nicely handled. We are able to get closer to Unterweger and allowed to inspect his facial emotions. This adds many layers to Malkovich’s bravura performance. His eyes are devilish. His gestures are unsure. His charisma is without question.
Sturminger doesn’t simply tell Unterweger’s story from soup to nuts. He incorporates an orchestra and two soprano singers. Together, we not only learn about the serial killer and his violent past, but we also relive some of his more heinous crimes. Singing selections from Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Boccherini and Weber, Laura Aikin and Aleksandra Zamojska are able to bring to life the pain behind the victims’s unfortunate stories. The technique is startlingly effective and sets Unterweger’s headline-grabbing tale in an operatic light.
The Infernal Comedy is, at times, an uneasy experience to watch. Malkovich plays the character with such a straight face that it’s hard to believe we haven’t been invited into the company of Unterweger himself. And when he grasps and gropes the sopranos into submission, there’s a real sense of danger and violence pulsating from his actions. This may be theater and this may be a DVD, but Unterweger oddly seems to live in Malkovich’s characterization, and that’s beyond frightening.
Arthaus Musik has given a gift to fans who were unable to catch one of the sold-out performances of The Infernal Comedy’s world tour. Watching the DVD is a transportive experience that allows an introspective view of a creepy new play featuring a creepily good actor playing a man who is the definition of creepy.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Bonus features: A documentary including interviews with the artists, rehearsal footage and archival material about the history of Unterweger