A blood-stained Viennese waltz

A new series on the BBC explores the life and tangled love affairs of a British Jewish doctor


The whiff of dark antisemitism and the beginnings of crime psychology come together in three cracking new films on BBC2, all under the umbrella title Vienna Blood.

Based on the Max Liebermann novels by British writer Frank Tallis, the films, with a wonderful, mainly central European cast, explore the life and tangled love affairs of Liebermann, a young and brilliant British Jewish doctor who is a disciple of Sigmund Freud.

It is 1906 in Vienna and Liebermann, played by Matthew Beard, meets Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt of the Vienna police. Rheinhardt is played by Juergen Maurer, well-known as an actor in Austria and Germany, but whose first English-language production this is.

The gorgeously shot films are written by Steve Thompson, one of the writers of Sherlock — and viewers will thus be familiar with the crime-fighting duo concept, one partner slightly slower to catch on than the other. Think Grantchester with a Jewish doctor instead of a vicar, and you’re halfway there.

Thompson and the director of the first film, The Last Seance, Academy Award and Emmy nominee Robert Dornhelm, have produced a sumptuous Viennese swirl of a mystery, with tantalising storylines about the Liebermann family and father Mendel’s encounters with antisemitic business leaders. “We decide who is a Jew,” growls one of the businessmen courting Mendel for his money.

Dornhelm, speaking from Prague where he is making the latest episode of a TV series about “the deeply antisemitic Maria Theresa”, the 18th-century Hapsburg ruler, was nominated for an Emmy for his 2001 TV mini-series, Anne Frank, The Whole Story. He says it is coincidence that he, from a Jewish family, has been able to work on programmes with Jewish themes. Usually, he says, particularly in TV, directors rarely get work related to their personal background.

The multi-lingual Dornhelm, 71, is well used to working with equally multi-lingual casts. Maria Theresa was shot in four languages and Vienna Blood, in English for the BBC, has a German language version, too, for screening in Austria.

Dornhelm himself, born and brought up in Romania, “with a little bit of religious education”, spoke German with his mother, Hungarian with his father, Romanian with his friends — “and Russian, of course”, as well as French in school. California, though has been home for the past 40 years.

All the Vienna Blood films were shot in the Austrian capital and there is one breathtakingly dramatic sequence in which our heroes, Liebermann and Rheinhardt, chase a suspect over the rooftops of the city. In fact, Dornhelm reveals, the chase takes place only on top of two buildings, one of which was the apartment building where he lived while filming.

But film buffs need to pay attention, here, because Dornhelm’s favourite film is Orson Welles’s The Third Man, and there are various inside jokes relating to it in Vienna Blood. The building where Dornhelm lived was also filmed by Welles, and Dornhelm has included footage of the same entrance. There are echoes, too, of the barely suppressed racism in Cabaret — there is a terrific scene in a fringe theatre — and the series’ first murder takes place in Leopoldstadt, the scene for Tom Stoppard’s new hotly anticipated play, which is set just six years before the Liebermann adventures.

Dornhelm is aware of the historic anomaly of the plot, featuring a British Jewish family living in Austria. “It doesn’t really make historic sense”, he says. “There was an antisemitic mayor in Vienna, and surely, in 1906, Jews would have been leaving Austria, not the other way around”.

But the clash of cultures, played out at a grand level in opera houses and at, a slightly seedy level, in Vienna’s cafes, is so pungent you could almost smell it.

By the way, Dornhelm advises that for really serious swearing — “when you want to dig deep” — Hungarian is the language required. Viewers are advised to save their Hungarian curses: Vienna Blood is a winner.

‘Vienna Blood’ airs from Monday November 18 at 9pm on BBC 2

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