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Media are upstaged by Austrian satire

A play about a man who imprisoned his daughter for 24 years in his cellar and fathered seven children with her, opens in Vienna under police protection.

The actress Tini Trampler performs in a scene from the play Pension F in a Vienna theatre crammed with reporters.
The actress Tini Trampler performs in a scene from the play Pension F in a Vienna theatre crammed with reporters.

BERLIN // A play about Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who imprisoned his daughter, Elisabeth, for 24 years in his cellar and fathered seven children with her, has opened in Vienna under police protection to howls of outrage from politicians and the tabloid media. Pension F. (Guesthouse F.) was written and directed by Hubsi Kramar, a 60-year-old Austrian actor and performance artist, who said it was a satire about the media's thirst for sensation in cases such as Mr Fritzl's, which shocked the world last April when the incarcerated children were released from their cellar prison.

Mr Fritzl, 73, goes on trial on March 16 charged with homicide because one of the children died shortly after it was born, as well as with rape, incest, slavery and false imprisonment. The case made global headlines and prompted the government to announce a campaign to restore Austria's reputation. Only two years earlier, Natascha Kampusch, an Austrian teenager, had managed to escape after being held by a kidnapper for more than eight years.

Before the play's debut, commentators in Austria called it a tasteless attempt to capitalise on the suffering of Mr Fritzl's victims. Kramar asked for police protection after receiving threats. Austria's best-selling tabloid, Kronenzeitung, wrote: "Herr Kramar. You are disgusting." The far-right Freedom Party called the play an "incredible scandal" and said it would do "indescribable damage" to Austria's image abroad.

Dozens of reporters and camera crews from all over the world, including the BBC and Al Jazeera, crammed into Vienna's 120-seat 3raum-Anatomietheater on opening night on Monday in the kind of media frenzy Kramar had evidently been hoping for. But their hopes for fresh scandal were dashed. Instead of focusing on Fritzl, the play is a string of cabaret performances poking fun at the media, which it accuses of being "randy" for sensation and willing to exploit innocent abuse victims to satisfy the public's voyeurism.

"Thank you, dear representatives of the media, for writing this play for us," Kramar told the press before the performance. "Unfortunately, too many of you have come. There's no room for us actors in the theatre." Some reviewers conceded that Kramar had succeeded in holding a mirror up to the media. "The real event didn't take place on stage. It consisted of the police who protected the theatre and the presence of 120 journalists on the 120 available seats," wrote one German daily newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The theatre was so full of reporters that they had difficulty finding ordinary theatregoers to interview. "It's not about the case and its disgusting details, but about the inglorious role of the media," wrote Germany's Frankfurter Rundschau, pointing to "the role of all those who turned up to stand in this rundown theatre with lustful looks." The reviewer for the Vienna-based Wiener Zeitung wrote: "The media satire succeeded perfectly - and everyone took part, apart from the camera teams who left with an air of disappointment because the hoped-for scandal hadn't materialised."

Pension F. includes a mock TV talk show and songs about abused children. A masked actor portraying a young abuse victim is present on stage throughout the play. A sign that says "Victims Boost Ratings" hangs above the stage. And while Fritzl is hardly mentioned, banner headlines about the case are projected on to the backdrop. All performances have been sold out, which is not surprising given the hype surrounding it and the small number of seats. Kramar plans three additional performances in April.

The Harvard-educated actor and director is well known in Austria for high-profile stunts, and famously attended the Vienna Opera Ball dressed as Adolf Hitler in 2000 to protest against the inclusion of the Freedom Party in a coalition government. He was arrested before he managed to have a dance. The Fritzl trial is expected to last just one week. He faces a life sentence. Elisabeth Fritzl and her children have been shielded from the press since last year and were released from a psychiatric clinic in December after eight months of counselling. They are trying to rebuild their lives in a secret location.

The electrical engineer locked Ms Fritzl, 18 at the time, in the cellar of his house in Amstetten, about 120km west of Vienna, in Aug 1984. He told his wife that she had run away to a religious cult. He had fitted the cellar with a 500-kilogram, sound-proofed door. What followed then was a 24-year-ordeal of rape and incarceration in which Ms Fritzl bore him seven children. One died at birth, and Mr Fritzl brought three of the surviving six children upstairs to live normal lives, telling neighbours that his daughter had left them on the family's doorstep.

They were released after one of the children suffered kidney failure and Mr Fritzl allowed her to be taken to hospital. The three children had never seen daylight. Berthold Kepplinger, the head of the Amstetten clinic that treated the children, called Ms Fritzl an "incredibly strong woman" for caring for the children, teaching them to read and write and giving them enough hope to stop them from going insane.

Mr Fritzl, it has been reported, has been negotiating with British tabloid newspapers to sell his interrogation transcripts for millions of euros. Ms Fritzl is believed to have kept a diary of her life in captivity, which includes an account of how she chased a rat with her bare hands. dcrossland@thenational.ae