If it’s turn of the century Vienna and there’s murder afoot, surely this must be the stamping ground of fictional consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and real-life headshrinker Dr Sigmund Freud? Well, partly – Vienna Blood, based on the best-selling Liebermann novels by clinical psychologist Frank Tallis, in fact, recounts the adventures of an English doctor, Max Liebermann. But yes, Sigmund Freud does get his foot in the door.
If you think of Vienna Blood as The Mentalist in top hats, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. We’ve seen this sort of historical proto-criminology before – Ripper Street, endless variations of Holmes, most recently Netflix’s The Alienist – and they usually tread familiar ground; there’s always a brilliant doctor, or policeman, convinced that modern scientific methods such as forensics and psychology are the future of detective work; and there’s always a fuddy-duddy old doctor, or policeman, who believes in the good old methods (usually involving beatings and cold baths.)
Vienna Blood, written by Steve Thompson (Sherlock, Deep State) stars Matthew Beard (The Imitation Game, And When Did You Last See Your Father?) as Liebermann, and Juergen Maurer (Vorstadtweiber, Tatort), as Oskar Rheinhardt, a Detective Inspector in the Vienna Police Department.
In 1906, Vienna is a hotbed of political conflict, scientific development, artistic innovation and sexual freedom, so there’s plenty of scope for drama.
Max Liebermann is a brilliant young Jewish doctor, studying under the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and keen to understand the criminal mind. He shadows Oskar Rheinhardt, a Detective Inspector in the Vienna Police Department, who is struggling with a perplexing case of a murder at a seance. Max brings skills perception and forensics, and a deep understanding of human behaviour and deviance, to the cases.
We gallop pretty quickly through an intro packed with cliché – a grumpy Inspector, an eager young doctor, a tetchy chief and a puzzling case – a dead woman, laid out in a wedding dress in a locked room used for fake seances. The usual sarky pathologist points out that the bullet wound contains no bullet – our money is on the old ‘ice bullet’ trick. And yes, this is a ‘tits on the slab’ production, as opposed to the more modest ‘sheet covering the body’ type.
Max’s family (Conleth Hill, Amelia Bullmore, Charlene McKenna), encourage his romance with society beauty Clara Weiss (Luise von Finckh), but he finds his studies distract him from her charms, and Max’s father doesn’t approve of the ‘new science’ of psychology – “It could take you to a very dark place”, he warns. Wooo-ooo-oooh!
Max takes Clara to a Gustav Klimt exhibition (no-one mentions that Klimt’s erotic work was highly controversial and would probably not have been a fit setting for a date), but the evening is interrupted when a young woman, Amelia Lydgate (Jessica de Gouw) has a spectacular breakdown, raving about ‘snakes’. Max examines her to no avail, and worries that she might fall into the hands of his tutor, who practices electro-shock therapy.
Rheinhardt’s murder investigation proceeds slowly as he can’t even identify the victim, but Liebermann’s skills prove helpful – in fact he has a very Holmesian conversation with Rheinhardt about the efficacy of observation. Examination of a ‘suicide note’ and the autopsy results suggest that the victim was pregnant, and that perhaps her lover killed her and staged a suicide.
Missing dresses eventually lead to a seamstress who was part of the séance circle, and provide a name for the victim, Charlotte Lowenstein, and one of the attendees, Otto Braun. Was he in on the seance con? Somehow, Otto is easily tracked down – he’s an illusionist at the local theatre – and, caught in flagrante, he’s pursued across the rooftops and caught.
Rheinhardt favours the old ‘beat it out of ‘em’ approach to getting a confession, but Max goes for the psychoanalytical approach and figures that Otto isn’t the killer – he had no reputation to lose over Charlotte’s pregnancy. Max’s dad, a merchant, is moving in wealthy society, so inevitably it will transpire that one of his contacts is the killer.
Max, meanwhile, is in trouble with his tutor, who tells him that the medical profession doesn’t change its practices every time a Jewish doctor publishes a book – presumably he refers to Sigmund Freud’s 1906 Psycho-Analysis and the Establishment of the Facts in Legal Proceedings, which we assume Max has been reading avidly.
Questioning the troubled Amelia, Max finds her perfectly rational, and prepares to have her discharged, but she goes tonto again – what psychological trigger is setting her off?
Otto is released for lack of evidence and returns to the theatre, where he’s brutally beaten to death and his mouth stuffed with rags – sounds like the Masons are getting in on the act. Meanwhile Max and family attend a recital where the accompanist is Gustav Mahler – Max points out to his father that Mahler’s cool reception is because he is Jewish, and asks him whether he has explained his ethnicity to his society friends (well, his name is Liebermann, would they really need more of a clue?)
Max’s sister Leah (Charlene McKenna, familiar from Ripper Street), who for some reason occasionally slips into a Cock-er-nee accent, challenges Max to commit to Clara, but he can’t; summoned to the scene of Otto’s death, he finds notes relating to burial plots. Could this be a clue to the members of the seance circle? In fact, they turn up everyone from a countess to a locksmith.
Over the objections of his boss, Rheinhardt agrees with Max’s suggestions to arrange a fake seance; of course everyone will agree to take part, because otherwise they will look guilty.
The ploy isn’t entirely successful, but Max has two revelations; firstly, that the dead Charlotte had arranged to photograph her lover; and second, that Amelia’s hysteria is triggered by the scent of a particular cologne.
Wealthy Heinrich Holderlein (Roland Koch), the prime suspect, doesn’t crack under interrogation, and Rheinhardt is taken off the case; but in a flurry of revelations, the antique murder weapon is found (we’re not told how), Rheinhardt realises that the deadly charge could have been human bone, Max realises that medical forceps could have been used to lock the door after the murderer left the room, and the Commissioner reveals that he’s been passing details of the investigation to the Mayor – a friend of Holderlein.
Max lures Mayor Brückmüller (Rainer Wöss) to the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel at Wurstelprater (yes, the Ferris wheel famously seen in noir classic The Third Man – it was built in 1897 by a British Navy engineer, Walter Bassett). Confronted with Max’s psychological analysis, Brückmüller reveals himself to be not only a murder, but a racist and a fascist as well; good thing Rheinhardt puts a bullet in him when he tries to throw Max out of the cabin.
Max, presumably thrown by his close encounter with oblivion, proposes to Clara; but does he know his own mind as well as he knows that of his subjects?
Pretty much a compendium of clichés, handsomely dressed but fairly pedestrian, Vienna Blood doesn’t do much original with its source material. All the expected components are present and correct – a bit of psychoanalysis, a bit of hypnotism, a bit of fascism – and the authentic locations bring something to the party, but neither lead performance is compelling, and we feel we’ve found out everything there is to know about the two characters (one insecure and driven, the other grief-stricken by the death of his daughter).
The dialogue veers from the pedestrian to the anachronistic, and we certainly don’t feel we’ve learned anything new about the period.
So will Vienna Blood prove to have hidden depths of meaning in the next two episodes? Well, as Sigmund Freud famously probably didn’t say, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”