Udo Proksch: Mad Genius or Murderer – Out of Control
TOP SECRET: A life caught between fanaticism and reality
Austrian businessman Udo Proksch was a designer and industrialist, a brilliant organizer, egocentric and probably completely mad. And in the end, his demise came about only when he was accused of sinking a ship and killing six people, a tragedy that eventually led to his conviction and imprisonment in Karlau, Graz, where he died in 2001.
But looking back, no one really knew who he really was. Still, it makes a great story, as audiences realized at the release of Out Of Control, a movie about Proksch’s controversial life in Austrian cinemas in mid 2010. ORF anchor-woman Ingrid Thurnher recently published a book on his controversial character, Auf den Spuren des Udo Proksch.
Out Of Control is a Filmhaus Wien production, co-financed by the ORF, the Film Institute, and Film Fonds Wien. Directed by Robert Dornhelm, this movie is a combination of archival footage from Proksch’s archive, as he himself was a film director, dozens of interviews from acknowledged Austrian people, from Androsch to Zilk, and partly narrated by Robert Reinagl. Additional material such as photos, letters from prison, designs, and concepts from Westlicht founder and co-producer Peter Coeln are used. This well-cut documentary with altering opinions lets people make up their mind about his persona, which only partly includes the case Lucona.
Proksch’s life was imprinted by his student times at the NAPOLA, a training school for up-and-coming SS officers and members of the Nazi Armed Forces. The guns and power placed in their hands during their formative years made a huge impression on him.
After studying at the Academy for Applied Arts in Vienna, he worked as an award winning designer and art director for the company Wilhelm Anger. Under the alias Serge Kirchhofer he designed the now famous sunglasses Carrera, of which 13 million were sold.
Proksch had two absurd and controversial "ideas", which he nevertheless thought were innovative and striking. One was an association he founded in 1969/70 that agreed to bury its members vertically, thus calling itself the "Verein der Senkrechtbegrabenen." The dead would be shrink-wrapped in plastic and then buried vertically, thus saving space in the overcrowded cemeteries and boost the plastic industry. Supporters included his then wife, the actress Erika Pluhar, and Helmut Zilk, later Minister of Education and Mayor of Vienna.
"This personally fascinated me," comments airline CEO and Formula 1 World champion Niki Lauda in the movie.
Proksch often talked about power, which he believed was more important than money; women were granted a place anyway – but power was the most essential instrument.
His other inspiration was to organize a safe environment, where men could play at war, with real guns and ammunition, to satisfy what he believed was man’s inescapable urge to kill.
"War is the father of all things," he would say. "We will continue to fight and kill, this is what is inside us," which seemed to perfectly describe what he believed in. His close friendship with then Defense Minister Karl Lütgendorf gave him access to an Austrian military base in Tyrol where he held controlled explosive drills and could live out his dream.
"I too am afraid of dying," he admitted. "You have to train to overcome that."
In 1972, Proksch bought the famous Viennese confectionary shop Demel - K.u.K Hofzuckerbäckerei, once a purveyor to the Imperial and Royal court of the Austria-Hungary monarchy. A year later he started Club 45 upstairs over the cafe, an association that was influenced, to a certain extent, by the Italian P2 group of Freemasons. A meeting place for politicians (mainly Social Democrats), industrialists, economists, and other opinion leaders, people came to discuss issues, hold parties, network, etc.
He knew everyone who was in power or otherwise influential at the time. Members of Club 45 were then Interior Minister Karl Blecha, Foreign Minister Leopold Gratz and Defense Minister Karl Lütgendorf; also today’s President Heinz Fischer as well as Hannes Androsch (later Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor) and Franz Vranitzky (later Chancellor) were members for a time.
"And if today someone says he was not member of the Club or in Demel, then he’s a liar," comments his brother and adds: "He was intellectually superior to the politicians, that has to be said. That is why he gained control over these people; he played them like marionettes. To some extent it was funny what he did with some."
Despite him being a brilliant man, he left people puzzled. Something was not quite right, and he used this to his advantage: In short, he was a master of manipulation. Although he was a small, balding man with a rather large belly, Proksch had an enormous effect on people, especially women. From tall and beautiful to small and plump, all women wanted to be with him, even if that meant for just a night. He was married three times, first to Erika Pluhar then to Daphne Wagner, and from 1969 onwards to Ariane Glatz. However, this didn’t change much; even when married, he was still unfaithful much of the time – he knew how to enchant, and how to make the most of his power.
For him, life was a game. He played with everyone, from one-night stands to life long friends and companions; he lived in his own world, and no one really knew who he was.
In 1977, the freighter Lucona sank in the Indian Ocean after an explosion, killing six people. Proksch, the owner of the cargo said the ship had been carrying expensive uranium mining equipment, and claimed nearly $20 million from his insurance company – which was later revealed as false and was never paid. Because of the strength of his connections, however, investigations were never really pursued, and it was only in 1985 that Proksch and partner Peter Daimler were arrested. And while they were set free days later, investigations by journalists of Gerald Freihofer and Hans Pretterebner resulted in the expose Der Fall Lucona (1987), and Proksch fled to the Philippines, where he lived in President Marcos’s palace.
Further investigations were conducted – including an expensive on-site inspection of the sunken ship in the deep waters off the Indian Ocean – and the scandal became increasingly involved as it was proven that the ship had been sunk by a time bomb, and no evidence of uranium-mining equipment was found. With the revelation of sabotage, Club 45 was closed down.
In a sense, it was the end of an era. In his book, Pretterebner describes Club 45 as a, "mafia like tool of the governing SPÖ, acting in a system of corruption and nepotism that, by any and all means, took advantage of the country."
After the death of his daughter Anna, Proksch had plastic surgery on his face in 1989 and returned to Austria; still he was recognized and arrested at the Vienna International Airport Schwechat. The trial put an end to the political careers of several of his friends among them National Council president Leopold Gratz and Interior minister Karl Blecha, who were in charge of the Proksch’s discharge. Karl Lütgendorf’s death, who dropped his positions the year the Lucona sank, remains unsettled to this day.
In 1992, after one of the longest and most expensive trials in post-war Austria, Proksch was convicted of the murder of six people and sentenced to 20 years in prison, which was later on increased to a life-long sentence.
In the movie, Erika Pluhar describes the many visits and talks they had while he was in prison. Although they had divorced 20-years before he was detained, she spoke at length about their time together, what they could have done differently, and about their only child who had died. At a certain time in her life, she had clearly loved him.
While in prison, Proksch also became friends with Austrian terrorist Franz Fuchs, Out of Control producer Wolfgang Ramml related in an interview. Fuchs was terrorist, convicted of sending letter bombs that killed four people and wounded over a dozen more, including Vienna Mayor Helmut Zilk, a close acquaintance of Udo Proksch. Although Fuchs refused to communicate with anyone while in prison, even his own attorney, he opened up to Proksch for reasons that remain unexplained.
On June 27, 2001 Proksch died during heart surgery in the prison hospital.
While Udo Proksch was a military fanatic, obsessed with war games, and a brilliant mad man, one wonders if he really was responsible for the sinking of the Lacona and the resulting deaths of six innocent people. Many who knew him doubted it, saying he was not physically violent and "couldn’t have hurt a flea." Although he always carried a gun and showed it off with considerable bravado, no one had ever seen him shoot at anyone. But Proksch declined to defend himself in court, the judge said in the movie.
Austrian Czech diplomat Karel Schwarzenberg, currently Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic, also questions his guilt. But beyond that, he too is unable to untie the riddles.
"What he really was, I don’t know, and I have huge doubts that Udo himself knew. In fact, I don’t think so."
Out of Control
Directed by Robert Dornhelm
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