The first episode of Vienna Blood presents us with a mystery. A woman is found dead inside a locked room – an apartment used to hold seances, which isn’t that surprising as the year is 1906 – with a suicide note nearby. Right from the start, things don’t add up: the note seems fake and the bullet wound doesn’t actually contain a bullet. There are no witnesses, no motive, nothing in the way of clues, and even the identity of the victim is in doubt. That’s enough to get any crime series off to a compelling start, but Vienna Blood has more cards to play.
For one, there’s the setting. Vienna in 1906 was one of the most exciting and forward-looking cities in the world, the capital of the still-thriving Austro-Hungarian Empire and a melting pot for all the varied cultures of Europe. It was at the centre of the arts and culture during the Belle Époque, a place where Europe’s turbulent politics was bubbling away before the First World War killed millions and redrew the map. Vienna Blood takes full advantage of the city’s rich culture, name-checking Gustav Mahler, Gustav Klimt, and Sigmund Freud.
It takes a distinctive duo to stand out against such a backdrop, and Vienna Blood’s mystery-solving odd couple is more than up to the task. Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt (Jürgen Maurer) of the Vienna Police Department is very much a meat & potatoes cop, an older, experienced pair of hands who tends to take things at face value and isn’t above getting a confession with his fists. He’s the one with his feet firmly on the ground; his new partner has a very different approach to fighting crime.
As the series begins Oskar’s bosses have decided he should allow himself to be shadowed during his latest investigation by Max Liebermann (Matthew Beard), a gifted young medical student with an interest in the workings of the criminal mind. The twist here is that Liebermann has been sneaking off to take in the lectures of one Sigmund Freud. His crime-solving superpower is the power of psychology.
Based on the best-selling Liebermann novels by clinical psychologist Frank Tallis, Vienna Blood is a series that knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to the mysteries of the human mind. There have been a number of historical series in recent years that have used historical settings to show what is now standard profiling in its cutting-edge infancy, but this sticks closer than most to the real-life theories of the time. Meeting Sigmund Freud doesn’t give Liebermann magical abilities; his theories are sensible, his mystery-solving logical, and hypnotism is just as likely to play a role in solving the crime as forensics.
Across the six episodes of this first series, Max and Oskar are faced with a range of crimes that mix the issues of the era with the mysteries of the human mind. Racism and fascism rear their ugly heads, as do psycho-sexual slayings and sinister symbolism. Freud might have famously said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but there’s a string of references here to snakes that are pretty clearly gesturing towards something a bit more sexual (especially when one is stolen from a zoo and later found butchered – near a statue of Mozart no less).
The rapid pace of cultural and scientific advances at the time gives the series (which was adapted by Steve Thompson, one of the writers of the BBC’s Sherlock) a lot to work with when it comes to new (for the time) methods of investigation. And not just when it comes to figuring out motives; it might seem commonplace to us now, but it wasn’t until 1901 that a way to tell the difference between animal blood and human was discovered – which turns out to be very handy in a later case.
If at times it seems like everyone around Max seems driven by impulses they barely understand - apart from Oskar, who’s grumpiness seemingly runs bone deep (though he’s burying some personal pain of his own) – that’s a big part of this series’ appeal. Vienna Blood’s world is one where our understanding of the human mind is still exciting and new, as shown by the parade of potential suspects leading double lives or hiding dark secrets.
That might sound a little Freudian, but that’s the point. Killers or not, the residents of turn-of-the-century Vienna are the people who inspired Freud, and through him solved – or at least, gave us a few more clues – to the biggest mystery of them all: the human mind.
Vienna Blood is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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