‘Vienna Blood’ Deftly Portrays Jewish Life Before the Holocaust

The PBS show depicts urbane, complex Jewish lives in 1906 Vienna, a society that both needs and reviles them.

I love a good murder mystery. I started religiously watching the TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories starring Jeremy Brett at 8 or 9, and never looked back. Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Inspector Morse, Phryne Fisher, I’ll watch them all day long. Yes, they can be formulaic, and even a little repetitive, but the comforting predictability of these stories is a core part of their appeal. Occasionally, though, a show does something so out of the ordinary that you can’t help but sit up and take notice. Enter “Vienna Blood.”

The engrossing crime procedural — an adaptation of the “Liebermann Papers” novels by Frank Tallis that was recently picked up for a third season — is deeply invested in depicting Jewish life in 1906 Vienna. “Vienna Blood” offers a freshened-up spin on the classic Sherlockian pairing of a gruff but caring veteran detective (Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, played by Austrian actor Jüergen Maurer) and a fish out of water who helps him see and solve crimes in a fresh way (Dr. Max Liebermann, a young Jewish Freudian trained in England, played by Matthew Beard).

As this odd couple find their endearing way towards a successful crime-fighting partnership, the murders of the week sit side-by-side with the series’ overarching plot across two seasons: the increasingly uneasy place held by even the most affluent and well-educated Jews in Austria-Hungary prior to the first World War. 

“Vienna Blood” is not a Jewish show, which makes its investment in dramatizing pre-Shoah Jewish life outside the shtetl all the more remarkable. I’ve never seen anything like it on English-language TV before.

From the very first episode, we see that wealth and educational attainment provide Max and his family some cosmetic insulation against the antisemitic rhetoric so commonplace at the time. Unfortunately, this benefit is undercut by everyone else’s suspicion of Max’s groundbreaking methods. Profiling murderers is commonplace now, but, in 1906, using behavioral observation to understand the motives behind bizarre murders and talk therapy to process traumatic experiences were considered disreputable. Police higher-ups such as Commissioner Strasser and the supercilious Inspector Von Bülow are pleasant enough to Max’s face, while routinely calling him “the Jew doctor” and alluding to the infamous “slyness” of our “race” in conversations with Oskar. Oskar never confronts their antisemitism directly, though he does point out that Max’s seemingly strange methods produce consistent results.

Meanwhile, Oskar’s initial annoyance at Max’s often-impertinent presence at his crime scenes isn’t rooted in bigotry at all, but in his having to be responsible for the safety of a rather effete rich boy in the midst of baffling, dangerous murder investigations. Max is a haughty, slightly bratty know-it-all whose sophisticated understanding of human psychology often comes off as a magic trick. Who could blame him for showing off his brilliance just a little, though? After all, when his mother talks about him, she can honestly brag about her son, the doctor! Oskar’s gruffness and Max’s insufferability slowly fade away as each gains more respect and affection for the other.

Max isn’t the only one dealing with micro- and macro-aggressions. His father Mendel, owner of a successful high-end fabric and drapery shop, gamely makes the networking rounds of Vienna’s wealthy and powerful, where one of the city fathers attempts to reassure him by saying that the mayor has declared that “we decide who is a Jew and who is not.” What a welcoming thing to hear from a potential friend and investor!

Mendel is so used to this chummy, yet icy treatment that he barely blinks, but Max’s antennae are more finely tuned. At a concert featuring Gustav Mahler, he’s incensed at the majority gentile audience’s tepid response to the great Jewish composer, hissing indignantly that hardly anyone is applauding as a social punishment “because [Mahler] doesn’t know his place.”

The Liebermanns are pretty assimilated — we never see them at shul, and the only clear outward signs of their Jewishness are Max’s borsalino fedora and the kippahs he and Mendel wear for Shabbat — but they haven’t adopted a more Austrian-sounding surname, either. (The borsalino is a brilliant touch by costume designer Thomas Oláh, who confirmed in our recent conversation that he wanted to include a trademark accessory that to a general audience would look slightly off for the time period, while being instantly recognizable to viewers alert to a “hint of a Jewish classic”.)

As is the case in many Jewish families today, the Liebermanns are observant enough that Max’s mother is affectionately annoyed that he’s late for Shabbat dinner (relatable!) and the rabbi presiding at Max’s engagement to Clara Weiss sports the oversized tallit and shtreimel we associate with Orthodoxy and Chasidim.

It’s not just little grace notes like these and Mendel’s flawless Hamotzi at Shabbat dinner that stand out, though. Over the course of two seasons, screenwriter Steve Thompson (who wrote for “Sherlock,” as well) and director Robert Dornhelm (who is Jewish) methodically ratchet up the audience’s dread of impending war by throwing into higher relief the increasing tension between the safe cocoon of Max’s warm home life and the intensifying, pervasive white nationalism he witnesses when working on cases with Oskar.

The plot of the second season finale makes all of the above seem quaint. The episode opens with a Jewish boy being beaten nearly senseless by a group of Gentile boys, incited by antisemitic rhetoric promoted by a zealous monk, Brother Stanislav. When Brother Stanislav is murdered, suspicion falls like a hammer on a devoutly Jewish man who confronted the monk at a public lecture days before.

The monastery’s Abbot stymies Max and Oskar’s investigation, so Max goes undercover as Brother Maxwell of Oxford to exonerate the accused (a performance he can pull off because he absorbed the catechism and more while pretending to be Catholic at boarding school. I know, just go with it).

While Max peels back layers of secrets in the monastery, police archivist Fräulein Linder uncovers the vicious blood libel at the heart of both Brother Stanislav’s extreme views and the general mood of antisemitism in Vienna at large. Of course, Max and Oskar get their man in the end, but their path to the truth is bone-chilling.

The rarity of seeing European Jewish lives and concerns prior to the rise of Nazism makes viewers eager to see something, even something mediocre, of this era on screen. Typically, when TV series and movies bother to dramatize European Jewry at all, they focus on either mid- or post-Holocaust periods. When contemporary audiences think about Jews earlier than 1939, the images that spring to mind are of huddled masses yearning to breathe free making their way to Ellis Island, or of “Fiddler on the Roof.” “Vienna Blood” shows us something special: urbane Jewish lives in much of their fullness, complexity, and internal contradictions, as people uneasily navigating life in a society that both needs and reviles them.

“Vienna Blood” is streaming via PBS Passport, and the PBS Masterpiece add-on to Amazon Prime, and is available to rent on many other platforms. Season three begins shooting on location in Vienna and Budapest this month.

Sophie Brookover

Sophie Brookover (she/her) is a Jersey girl, former librarian, and culture witch. She'll share her challah recipe with you any day of the week, and she knows you'd just love her irrepressible cultural recommendations newsletter, Two Bossy Dames.

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