Revisiting Hell New Film Depicts Natascha Kampusch's Captivity

A feature film about Natascha Kampusch, who was abducted at the age of 10 and held captive for eight years, hit German-language cinemas this week. "3096 Days" tells the story of her imprisonment and ends with her escape. In real life, Kampusch is still looking for closure.

Constantin Film

There are a few things she's saved: her diary, a Barbie doll, a radio. The Barbie and the radio were both gifts from her kidnapper, and the magnetic powder that the police used to dust for prints still clings to all these objects. "I've tried every kind of cleaning product," Natascha Kampusch says, "but the stuff just doesn't come off."

On March 2, 1998, Kampusch was 10 years old and on her way to school when a man grabbed her and dragged her into a delivery van. She disappeared without a trace. The police soon relegated the kidnapping to their cold case files, while a therapist advised Kampusch's mother to buy a grave plot.

On August 23, 2006, Kampusch reappeared. After 3,096 days imprisoned in the basement of a house in a Vienna suburb, she had escaped from her captor. The case gave new hope to many parents of missing children, but it also shook the public's confidence in the Austrian police, who had conducted their investigation so sloppily -- not to mention in humanity itself. How could anyone torment a child in such a way? And how many more basement prisons lay hidden beneath normal suburban houses? There was at least one other in Austria alone, as the Fritzl case later showed.

After her escape -- her "self-liberation," as Kampusch calls it -- the whole world came to know her name, and soon it knew her face as well. Kampusch gave her first TV interview two weeks into her new freedom.

What the viewers saw was not a distraught, pitiable girl, but a self-confident young woman wearing a headscarf, which later turned out to be hiding the shaved head inflicted on Kampusch by her captor. This was a woman who spoke with great composure about her captivity and about her kidnapper Wolfgang Priklopil, who, Kampusch says, "both put me on a pedestal and trampled me under his feet." The message here was clearly that Kampusch had no interest in being a victim or in hiding away, and that she planned to make her own decisions about her life.

And now? Who is Kampusch these days? She turns and points to a bookshelf lined with foreign language editions of her autobiography. A global bestseller, it has been published in 37 different translations, including Russian, Finnish, Chinese and Vietnamese. The cover of each book shows Kampusch's image, a photograph in which she looks determined, but not particularly happy. "The Natascha Kampusch in that picture, that's not necessarily me," she says. "That's a different person."

Maintaining Authority over Her Own Life

This particular conversation takes place in early February in Vienna, in a conference room belonging to the agency that coordinates Kampusch's appointments. A makeup artist has prepared Kampusch for the SPIEGEL photographer. Her media advisor Wolfgang Brunner sits beside her, but doesn't intervene. Kampusch sets the audio recorder on the table directly in front of her, and as she speaks she gazes at it as if it were a rare butterfly. She only occasionally seeks eye contact.

Kampusch's story has been depicted in numerous books and televised documentaries, plays and TV crime thrillers. Now, Kampusch, 25, is the subject of a feature film. "3096 Days," which premiered in movie theaters this week, condenses eight and a half years into 109 minutes, in a movie that is a psychological thriller and a coming of age drama all in one.

Kampusch is portrayed by two British actresses, with Amelia Pidgeon playing her as a child and Antonia Campbell-Hughes as a young woman. The film is in English, easily accessible for the global market. It is directed by Sherry Hormann, 52, the director of "Desert Flower," with cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, 77, who has worked with directors such as Martin Scorsese. Hormann and Ballhaus have been married since 2011.

"3096 Days" is also the last project from producer Bernd Eichinger, who died two years ago and was known for large-scale productions such as "Downfall" and "Perfume." Together with Munich-based production company Constantin Film, Eichinger bought the film rights to Kampusch's autobiography in 2010, but was unable to complete the script before his death.

In her first weeks of freedom, Kampusch was already receiving offers from filmmakers, including Constantin Film. She says she read draft scripts "with scenes of brutal violence and sex that had nothing to do with my experience." At the time, she declined. When she later agreed to sell the film rights, she obtained contractual assurance that she would be allowed to read the script, and indeed some details in the film were changed at her request.

Kampusch is determined to maintain authority over her own life, no matter what resistance she faces, which is one reason she occasionally grants interviews to journalists. "Talking about these things has a therapeutic effect," she says. "Keeping quiet only reinforces the victim role."

She also wants to provide a counterbalance to the rumors, slander and derision she faces. For years, tabloids and even some of the case's investigators have speculated on the relationship between Kampusch and her captor Wolfgang Priklopil, who committed suicide the same day Kampusch escaped. Why, some have asked, didn't Kampusch escape sooner, for example when Priklopil took her from the basement prison into his house? The head of a commission tasked with reviewing investigations into the case even suggested in an interview that Kampusch's captivity might have been "better than her life before it."

Playing God

Kampusch's captor spent months building a prison for his victim deep underground, a five-square-meter (54-square-foot) space with ventilation, a toilet and a washstand. Access to this space was concealed behind a safe and additionally secured with a 150-kilogram (330-pound) reinforced concrete door and a second, wooden door. Priklopil's combination of insanity and DIY ambition made for a nearly perfect crime. Even if police had searched his house, they might not have found the prison.

Priklopil played God with his captive. He provided food, light, air and music. He turned off the electricity that powered Kampusch's lights and radio whenever he felt like it. He gave or withheld food, and especially in later years he often starved her for days. He installed an intercom, through which he would repeatedly shout, "Obey!" He demanded that Kampusch call him "Maestro." But he also played Parcheesi with his prisoner and gave her books -- "Alice in Wonderland," Erich Kästner's "The Flying Classroom," the adventure stories of Karl May, Agatha Christie's mystery novels.

What was the kidnapper's motive? "You came to me like a stray cat, and people are allowed to keep cats," Priklopil told Kampusch. Later, he admitted to her that he had "always wanted to have a slave." He hit and kicked her and forced her to do housework, and if she didn't immediately obey, he complained, "There's no instruction manual for you."

"I think I was only able to survive that time because I separated the things that happened to me from myself," Kampusch wrote in her autobiography. "It wasn't something I decided consciously, as an adult would, but rather a child's survival instinct. I left my body when the captor attacked it and watched from a distance as a 12-year-old girl lay on the floor and was kicked." Kampusch wrote that these attacks seemed "as if they happened not to me but to someone else."

Viewers might choose to see the current film as another attempt on Kampusch's part to put distance between herself and the events that occurred. Now she can go to a movie theater and watch two actresses pretending to be Natascha Kampusch dealing with her fate. Surely Kampusch must find herself comparing the images in the film with the images in her head, with her memories. How does that work?

Instead of answering this question directly, Kampusch relates how she visited the set during filming for "3096 Days" at Bavaria Studios, near Munich, where the film team had painstakingly recreated the basement prison. The set builders had visited the real prison in Vienna in preparation.

"Visiting the set affected me deeply," Kampusch says. "But it also gave me strength, because now I knew that I made it out of there. Back then, when I was in the real room, I didn't know whether I would survive." Kampusch also sat down over cake with actor Thure Lindhardt, who plays the kidnapper. She says, "It was funny, because I took a piece of his cake away from him and ate it. In reality, it was always the other way around."

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