Published Sep 14, 2015There's a famous Margaret Atwood quote that goes: "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, while women are afraid that men will kill them." In many ways, this could be the tagline for Jack, Elizabeth Scharang's observational biopic on Jack Unterweger (Johannes Krisch), the Austrian serial killer that became a minor celebrity and noted writer in the early '90s after being released from prison.
Scharang's film, which was originally planned as a meticulous, research-based documentary, primarily covers the time following Unterweger's release from prison, albeit in a fragmented, episodic manner. She does insert a preface, which bookends Jack, vaguely detailing the night in 1976 when he murdered an 18-year-old girl by strangling her with her own bra and leaving her to freeze to death outdoors on a cold winter night. But this, like most of the perspective offered throughout, has more to with the girl (Sarah Viktoria Frick) accompanying Jack on that night — the one he didn't kill — and the link that her fear of the unstable narcissist had with her sexuality.
Once the timeline jumps ahead 15 years, this psychological biography outlines the simultaneous fascination and horror Austrian society felt towards Unterweger after his autobiography, Fegefeuer oder die Reise ins Zuchthaus, was released. Elitist academics were intrigued by Jack's prolific variety of work, which led to their rapid acceptance and social adoption of the convicted killer, giving him a foundation and a litany of opportunities to write for various newspapers and appear on television. While Scharang's subdued and somewhat opaque work documents the known factoids about Unterweger's relationships and whereabouts during this time, it pays closer, more acutely analytical attention to his treatment of women and their response to him.
Krisch, a weathered, skeleton of a man, done up here in sleazy pimp outfits and an affected sense of machismo, isn't someone we can identify with or imagine women swooning for. But, as the thriller elements and psychological horror suggests, he does represent a sense of danger and renown. Unterweger's writing is quite involved and respected, suggesting a deeper complexity than what presents on the surface, and his status — a seeming embodiment of the notion that true reform is possible — appeals to socialites, such as a patron (Corinna Harfouch) that ultimately pays for his apartment.
While the sense of mystery that Scharang constructs never works entirely, there is a palpable sense of intrigue about her presentation of gender politics. As Jack unfolds, news that the dead bodies of multiple prostitutes — all in locales that the reformed killer frequents — raises some questions about his whereabouts and wrongdoings. Since Unterweger was never officially considered guilty (he committed suicide following his conviction for the murder of nine prostitutes), there's a revisionist and speculative sensibility about how we perceive his character. And since there's never much of an in with him, it's difficult to care about the outcome.
What is compelling is the motivation of these society women: Why are they sleeping with and fetishizing a killer and rapist? Since Jack isn't interested in offering expository explanations for the actions depicted, it's the weighting of events that ultimately allows the themes to emerge. Towards the end of the film, when Jack revisits his teenage girlfriend, she has a subdued disposition; he fucks her aggressively and with a sense of passion that she doesn't reciprocate. She appears resigned to the danger he represents. This is then juxtaposed with a flashback to the night of the murder as she anxiously sat in the car, screaming into her hands while Jack beat another woman.
It's this link between sex and violence, specifically for these women around this damaged man (his mother was reportedly a prostitute that couldn't identify who his real father was), that asks the most questions here, and provides the most intrigue. It's just unfortunate that it's on the periphery of a partially unsuccessful and sensationalized biography about a piece of shit human being.