Nearly a decade ago, on a balmy August morning in Salzburg, I scrolled upon a headline reporting the murder of a Georgetown socialite. “Is it anyone I know?” I wondered before clicking on the story to find out.
Lo and behold, it was! Viola Drath, a 91-year-old German-born Georgetown stalwart, had been found dead in her bathroom after an apparent act of foul play. Her second husband, a German immigrant 44 years her junior called Albrecht Gero Muth, soon became the chief suspect after claiming that she had fallen and later, when forensic evidence of strangulation and bludgeoning was discovered, that she had been murdered by sinister foreign agents.
This did not explain why he waited a number of hours to call the police, why he Googled Mexican and Canadian border crossing protocols while he was waiting, why skin samples with his DNA were found under Viola’s broken fingernails, or why he produced a sketchy addendum to Viola’s will purportedly leaving him a considerable inheritance that she had denied him before.
And just a few weeks earlier, she had done a truly terrible thing: she reduced his allowance.
After Muth’s arrest for first-degree murder, he pursued a strange and meandering legal defense. Initially, he repeated the secret agent story before spuriously claiming violations of his rights under international law, dismissing his court-appointed public defenders so that he could act as his own counsel, and refusing food on what he insisted were instructions from the Archangel Gabriel.
For a while, Muth was able to preserve the fiction that he was psychologically unfit to stand trial, but the court eventually saw through his tomfoolery. Severely malnourished and hospitalized, in January 2014 he appeared in court via video conference to hear his guilty verdict. He was subsequently sentenced to 50 years in prison, where he remains today.
The story attracted considerable coverage in the establishment press and gossip from those who knew or had at least observed the star-crossed couple around Washington. It proved strong enough to attract Hollywood’s attention and provided the plot for a feature film, titled simply “Georgetown,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019. It was only released to the general public last month, however, and is available through various streaming services.
The film is based on a 2012 New York Times story about the case by Franklin Foer. Christoph Waltz directs in his behind-the-camera debut and also stars as a character based on Muth. Vanessa Redgrave co-stars as a pseudonymized Viola, with Annette Bening as her concerned daughter.
Georgetown socialites are rarely murdered, and Viola was not merely an idle, well-off, old white lady but a seasoned journalist who had covered North America for Handelsblatt, the leading German financial paper. She also cultivated broad artistic interests, which allowed her to transcend Washington’s stultifying political bubble, and had a natural grace that made her well at ease among the “cave dwellers,” the more rarified social set that even the most dazzling celebrity politicos can rarely penetrate, and who are themselves sent up in a recently published murder mystery novel of the same name.
Bridging that gulf made Viola, who arrived in Washington with her U.S. army officer first husband in 1968, popular on the social scene for decades. It also left her vulnerable when she was widowed in 1986. She reportedly had plenty of suitors of her own age and social milieu, but found them old and boring—hardly uncommon qualities in the nation’s capital. Youth and excitement arrived through her professional life, when at a conference she encountered Albrecht Muth, then a 20-year-old student at American University holding an unpaid congressional internship.
Acquainted before her first husband died and sharing her German background, Muth became very close to Viola and offered at least stimulating companionship. The physical dimensions of their relationship remain a mystery. During one of their many separations, Muth had a live-in relationship with a man, suggesting he was only with Viola for company and emotional support. But he was more than just a “walker”: a younger man, usually gay, whose function in Washington society was to escort unattached older women to social events with no expectation of romance. Whatever the dynamics, Muth offered Viola something that filled a deep emotional need. They married in 1990. To the surprise and disgust of virtually everyone who knew Viola, she kept him around until she met her fatal end at his hands 21 years later.
It was a horrible relationship from the beginning. The police were frequently called to Viola’s Georgetown house, where Muth had moved in, to address domestic violence complaints. At least once, Muth was arrested and jailed. Viola’s children and close friends tried various interventions, in which she freely admitted that her husband was bad news, but failed to break whatever hold he had on her.
Their dinner parties, to which Viola’s stature and Muth’s importuning attracted the occasional A-list guest (including former Vice President Dick Cheney and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, on one occasion each, according to their guestbook), were said to be nightmarish, with the hosts sniping at each other in their claustrophobic, crypt-like dining room, strangely located in what Washingtonians like to call the “English” basement. None of my Washington friends who went ever accepted another invitation or, in most cases, even replied to any subsequent message that Albrecht sent them. Eventually, Viola’s family stopped seeing her when they knew Albrecht would be present.
By the early 2000s, when I met them, they almost always socialized separately when not at home—he, flying solo and she, usually escorted by a distinguished and more “age-appropriate” man who easily could have been taken for a husband or geriatric love interest.
Despite Viola’s domestic drama, she was always gracious, kind, understated, and genuinely pleasant to talk with. It was immediately easy to see why she had been so popular for so long, and why she would have been popular anywhere.
Muth, however, was an obviously disturbed man whose body language—darting eyes, unsettling movements, weird ticks, jerky gesticulations—were precisely the ones listed in various psychological manuals describing people with psychopathic personality disorders. He tended to communicate in monologues, with little regard for anything anyone else said, and name-dropped to the point of nausea. Some would listen, either out of docile Washington politeness or in hope of gleaning some useful tidbit of information from someone who at least sounded like he might have known what he was talking about. In D.C., after all, such behavior is far from uncommon. A study reported by Politico in 2018 found that the District of Columbia ranks highest in the nation in incidence of psychopathy, where it registers nearly twice as high as in the next closest state.
Nevertheless, even then Muth’s public persona stood out for its sheer bizarreness in an official town that rarely accepts or tolerates any amount of eccentricity or even modest deviation from its denizens’ gray Men’s Warehouse or beige Anne Taylor-inspired norm.
Sometimes Muth sported an eyepatch he did not need, claiming that he had lost an eye while fighting as a mercenary in Paraguay. Closer to the fall of the Berlin Wall, he claimed to be a reformed East German agent who had been sent to Washington to spy on famous people. Most infamously, he masqueraded as an Iraqi army general, in a uniform that, as was later revealed, he had custom-ordered online from a tailor in South Carolina. It is said that he had a bogus certificate commissioning his pretended rank prepared at a suburban Maryland printshop. When he combined it with the eyepatch while strutting his tony streets, his suspicious neighbors called him “Colonel Mustard.” His antics got so out of hand that the Iraqi embassy sent him a note demanding that he stop misrepresenting himself.
Later, while on the outs with Viola for an extended period, he caused a minor stir by sending fake intelligence reports to the State Department from what he claimed was Muqtada al-Sadr’s camp in Iraq. In fact, he was employed as a hotel clerk in Miami, but this intelligence scam was perhaps his greatest feat. To the State Department’s hushed but well-deserved humiliation, Wikileaks later revealed that a number of senior U.S. diplomats believed his reports were both genuine and valuable.
When it suited him, Muth had still another identity as “Count Albi.” To Washington naïfs of a certain position, he explained that an elderly relative had conferred this title (which, as far I can tell, died out in the 13th century) upon him after falling off of an elephant in India. To those who presumably knew more about the transmission of European titles of nobility, he would claim kinship with a strange and gratuitous solemnity that screamed “Imposter!” In short, he was an eccentric bore long before he became a murderer, the type of person who would buy you a drink and then refuse to pay for it after you left (as happened to me the last time I saw him).
If the film had depicted Muth as he really was, it might have been edgier, a more accurate depiction of the seamier side of Washington social life, and a lot more entertaining. Waltz’s dramatic gifts certainly encompass eccentricity and even a touch of madness, as his amusing roles in “Inglorious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” demonstrated. But here the production team chose a more vanilla approach.
The character based on Muth, “Ulrich Mott,” is certainly pushy and ingratiating, but he is too polite, polished, and conforming to be filtered out, as Muth was by everyone except Viola. Even the age difference is softened. When the relationship begins in the film, “Mott” is a man of 50 rather than 20, but implausibly holds the same unpaid internship in a congressman’s office.
The character is also goal-oriented in a way that Muth was not, making “Mott” far more akin to a standard D.C. “climber,” an irritating but easily managed self-promoter of no scruple who seeks ever grander surroundings to facilitate financial or professional success. They abound, but would never actually kill anyone. It would not look good on a CV, after all.
In the film’s party scenes, the Washington sophisticates listen to “Mott’s” nonsense with more than a grain of salt but remain curious enough to show an interest in his friendship that no one ever showed for Muth, with whom association was regarded as at least very embarrassing. There is little hint of Muth’s gonzo grandiosity or long-term violent tendencies, though the Iraqi angle is played up as a bizarre fantasy world into which he occasionally drifts.
In the film, “Mott” only kills Viola (here called “Elsa Breht”), whom Redgrave plays with a touch of vindictiveness that the real woman never possessed, after she cruelly taunts him with his many failures late one evening after a minor scene and following Muth’s rejection by a male love interest at an infelicitous late-evening assignation. The character’s rage is of merely a moment rather than of the real man’s lifetime.
It may have been that absence of an “arc” in Muth’s life that turned off the filmmakers to the grittier real-life story. Like a more clinically defined narcissist, he had no discernible projects that came to anything approaching fruition and seemed content to coast on his charades without ever building toward anything higher. Whatever “status” he acquired was needed to fill a void in his soul. The terrible truth—that his sham marriage was a relationship of crippling codependency platforming outrageous imposture—would have made a far more accurate and much more chillingly cautionary tale about life in the nation’s capital.