John Malkovich on Stage as a Serial Killer

Asen Terziev*

Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer. Author: Michael Sturminger, director: Martin Haselböck, with the Orchester Wiener Akademie, (Conductor Martin Haselböck). Performers: Soprano Chen Reiss, Soprano Susanne Langbein. With John Malkovich. Presented in Bulgaria within the Intermezzo program of the International Theatre and International Music Festivals “Varna Summer,” with the support of the Ministry of Culture and the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria. Main Stage, Festival and Congress Centre, Varna, July 23, 2023.

For the first time, the Bulgarian audience has had the opportunity to see live an unusual performance, which has been travelling successfully around the theatre stages of the world for over 15 years. Created in 2008, Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer is a hybrid between theatre and opera, concert and spectacle, documentary and fiction; a result of the co-operation between three distinguished artists in their own fields: famous Hollywood actor John Malkovich, conductor and artistic director of the Orchester Wiener Akademie Martin Haselböck and director and playwright Michael Sturminger. Infernal Comedy was inspired by the riddles surrounding the life and personality of one of the most malevolent tricksters of the end of the last century—the Viennese strangler Johann (Jack) Unterweger.

John Malkovich in the role of the infamous serial killer-writer Jack Unterweger. Promo photo: Nathalie Bauer and Reinhard Winkler Brucknerhaus

During his relatively short 43-year lifetime, Unterweger went through a full circle of extraordinary metamorphoses. First, a young convict serving a life sentence for the brutal killing of a woman, then a self-aware and repentant sinner, who discovered his own literary talent and won the sympathy of numerous Austrian intellectuals who pleaded for his early release. All this led to his second return into society, now as a mature man, popular writer and respected criminal journalist, who started reporting on crimes, among them some cases of murder which he had secretly committed himself, as would later transpire. When he finally ended up in the prison of Graz once again, accused of 11 murders, he kept on denying, but his alibis began to fall apart. On 29 June 1994, his second life sentence was pronounced. On the same night, he chose to terminate the court trial by putting an end to his life. He hanged himself with a string from his trousers and some metal wire, in a manner spookily reminiscent of the manner in which he had been strangling his victims in cold blood with a complicated knot made from their bras.

John Malkovich enters the stage. Infernal Comedy, Festival and Congress Centre, Varna. Photo: Rossen Donev

The title Infernal Comedy is an ironic Dantean reference, both to Christian teachings about sin and redemption and also to the title of Unterweger’s own autobiography, which he wrote while first in prison: Purgatory or The Trip to Prison—Report of a Guilty Man (1983). We come across allusions to the great beyond also in the title of the most popular documentary book on Unterweger, written by John Leake, Entering Hades (2007).This provided John Malkovich and Martin Haselböck with a much needed starting point, which they could develop into an independent stage work of which they both had been dreaming and in which they aspired to fuse the arts of acting and music. Learning about Unterweger actually feels like going down to hell—it takes you on a journey to those places of the human mind where darkness is thick and sticky and the light of reason fails to pierce through. There, reign elemental, irrational powers, which cannot be fully understood, but only felt.

Until today, many issues surrounding Unterweger remain unclear: the motivation behind his many murders, his own paradoxical logic of self-sabotage, the powerful gravity of his erotic charisma, which made some women fall for him truly and deeply. The production of Malkovich, Haselböck and Sturminger neither tries to give answers nor to pass judgements. It rather chooses to approach the Unterweger mystery by diving into the emotional whirlpool of his disturbed soul. One had better be well prepared and equipped when plunging into waters so deep and dark, which is why the staging is armed with various Verfremdungs­effekt techniques in a Brechtian manner. Instead of a realistic representation of the life and trials of Unterweger, as in a court room drama with cross-examination scenes and breath-stopping suspense from the excavation of yet more and more decaying corpses, what the audience gets is a hybrid, something between a sophisticated classical concert and a theatrical performance. Apart from the baroque orchestra ensemble and the conductor, an actor and two female singers are also on the stage.

The killer and the mother. Scene with John Malkovich and Chen Reiss. Photo: Rossen Donev

Clad in an elegant white costume with the black sunglasses of a playboy, John Malkovich plays an ironically distanced version of the infamous writer-killer, who has inexplicably resurrected himself from death and is here tonight with his audience on this very stage to finally reveal the whole truth about himself. He is charming and seductive, despite his comically exaggerated Austrian accent. He is accompanied by two elegant ladies—the sopranos Chen Reiss and Susanne Langbein, whose soaring voices change the power balance of his bold and confident one-man show by adding the missing female viewpoint. Yet another counterpoint to the brutal details of the criminal plot comes from the beauty of the excerpts from pieces by Mozart, Gluck, Vivaldi, Haydn, Beethoven, Weber and Boccherini, performed live by the masters of the Orchester Wiener Akademieon their period instruments.

The killer-writer and his victims. Left to right Susanne Langbein, Chen Reiss and John Malkovich. Photo: Rossen Donev

At first, it seems as if woman in Unterweger’s world is given only the inert supporting role of a weak and passive victim upon whom he can recklessly unleash his instinctive aggression and brutality, but the staging points also to another psychic truth, more difficult to absorb—the seismic female power field of emotion which can topple even the most concrete male will and reduce it to compulsive cries and shivers. In one scene, Malkovich is harassing Susanne Langbein: while she is singing, he ruffles her long and beautiful blond hair, destroying her hairdo, then pushes her down to the ground and obscenely puts a bra over her elegant evening gown. But when all the rough play is over, he is the one who stumbles to the floor, gasping in exhaustion. She simply leaves the stage, hurt and offended, yet dignified and intact.

Standing ovation for (L-R) Martin Haselböck, Chen Reiss, John Malkovich, Susanne Langbein after their Infernal Comedy, Festival and Congress Centre, Varna. Photo: Rossen Donev

In another of the most memorable scenes of the show, the dark-haired Chen Reiss performs a long, moving aria of an abandoned wife from an opera by Vivaldi, while Malkovich kneels beside her, his head quietly resting on her belly as if it were a conch shell, with the sound streaming out from there. His body now seems small and curled up as within a womb, and we can’t be certain what he is up to—waiting or hiding, afraid to be born. 

*Asen Terziev, PhD,is an Associate Professor at the National Academy for Theatre & Film Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria. His interests are in theatre theory, history and theatre management. He is the author of  two  books: Theatricality—The  Language  of  Performance  (2012)  and  The  Drama  and  English Romanticism—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley (2019). He has published frequently (reviews, theoretical articles, interviews, translations) in various specialized journals of theatre and culture. He is a co-founder and main coordinator of the Via Fest Foundation.

Copyright © 2023 Asen Terziev
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email