February 27, 2020

Murder and Anti-Semitism in 1900s-Set ‘Vienna Blood’

Photo courtesy of Petro Domenigo/2019 Endor Productions/MR Film

A young criminal profiler teams up with a veteran detective to solve a series of grisly murders in a new TV miniseries. Although it sounds like the latest spinoff of “FBI” or “Criminal Minds,” “Vienna Blood” is actually a BBC-produced period mystery set at the turn of the last century that pairs a Jewish student of Sigmund Freud with a skeptical, by-the-books Austrian police inspector. 

Based on a series of novels by Frank Tallis, the six-hour PBS drama stars Matthew Beard as Max Liebermann and Jürgen Maurer as Oskar Rheinhardt. Cases involve gruesome cult killings, the murder of a spiritualist medium (reflecting the séance fad of the time) and mysterious deaths at a military academy, all set against a backdrop of enlightenment in the arts and the alarming rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-Semitism. The latter is woven into stories that depict Liebermann’s observant Jewish family and his romantic life. 

Director Robert Dornhelm was more interested in these sociopolitical elements and the period milieu than in the crime aspect. “Vienna in 1900 is a very potent period,” he said in an interview with the Journal. “You have a revolution in the arts and a renewal in the domains of architecture, music, painting. But hand in hand with that is nationalism, intolerance and a disregard for human life. There was a strong German nationalistic movement and a rise in anti-Semitism dating back to the 1880s,” he said. “Adolf Hitler just jumped on the bandwagon.”

At a press conference for the series in Vienna, Dornhelm said a reporter accused him of “making Austria look bad.” He responded that the history wasn’t his invention and that’s the way it was at the time. “Obviously, the sensitivity is still there,” he said. “What I’m hoping to convey is how quickly human beings are reduced to sheep, go to war and forget their humanity. It should be a warning.”

For Romania-born Dornhelm, who grew up in Vienna but has lived in Los Angeles since 1982, the project was a chance to go home. “I’ve done a lot of work there; documentaries for television. My parents and grandparents are buried there. My brother and my daughter live there.” 

“What I’m hoping to convey is how quickly human beings are reduced to sheep, go to war and forget their humanity. It should be a warning.” 

— Robert Dornhelm 

On set, Dornhelm said, “It was interesting to see the British cast interact with the Austrians,” his lead actors in particular. “It was tense in the beginning, which was perfect because Max and Oskar had to get used to each other. They became really good friends and  Jürgen  was teaching Matthew all kinds of Viennese slang words and jokes,” he recalled. “Nothing pleases me more than a good, playful atmosphere on the set. Most of my colleagues like tension and get creativity out of it. With me, it’s the opposite. There’s enough tension anyway with having to finish on time. People give you more when they’re relaxed.”

Dornhelm’s resumé includes several other period projects for television including a “War and Peace” miniseries (2007); “The Crown Prince” (2006), about Rudolf, the last of the Hapsburgs; and, most recently, a miniseries about Austrian Empress Maria Theresa (2017). He received an Oscar nomination for his 1977 documentary, “The Children of Theatre Street,” about the Kirov Ballet, and an Emmy nomination for “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” (2001). 

Growing up in Romania with religious Jewish grandparents and parents who were less so, Dornhelm was studying for his bar mitzvah when his family made “a very adventurous escape” to Vienna in 1960. “I never had the bar mitzvah,” he said. 

When he first came to Hollywood in the late ’70s, he signed with agent Paul Kohner, who represented many of his favorite directors. “[Luis] Bunuel, [Ingmar] Bergman, Billy Wilder, William Wyler — I got to meet them all,” he said.

Kohner was Jewish but didn’t realize that his new client was, too. “He said, ‘I have a project you’d be perfect for, but the producers want someone Jewish.’ ” Dornhelm promptly began reciting the Four Questions. Kohner asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me?” To which Dornhelm replied, “I didn’t want to get the job only because I’m Jewish.” 

Around the same time, Dornhelm had a Jewish producer friend “who wanted to bring me back to the tribe and reunite me with my forgotten rituals, and he did. I can say a few prayers but I can’t say I’m a religious person,” he said. 

In the future, Dornhelm said he’d be interested in exploring other Jewish subjects on film and would not be opposed to directing additional “Vienna Blood” episodes. He hopes those who tune in get a sense of the time and place in which it is set, and appreciate it for more than its aesthetics. “To have nice costumes and architecture aren’t enough,” he said. “I’m not trying to pretend that this will change the world, but I hope you’ll understand the time in which it takes place, and that you will be inspired and entertained.”

“Vienna Blood” premieres Jan. 19 on PBS.