Frank Tallis (Author of the Liebermann novels)

Vienna Blood (3x90’) is written by acclaimed screenwriter Steve Thompson (Sherlock, Deep State). Based on the best-selling Liebermann novels by Frank Tallis, the series will air on BBC Two this winter.

Published: 7 November 2019
Back in Freud’s day, there was a lot being discussed in those coffee houses over Punschkrapfen and Kaiserschmarren. We might not realize it but we’re still having the same conversations.
— Frank Tallis

Tell us a little about what inspired you to write the Liebermann books?

I have three passions in life: Psychoanalysis, music and cake. So, the idea of writing Viennese thrillers in which a doctor-detective attends musical events and visits coffee houses was always very appealing. Needless to say, I took my research very seriously, visiting the coffee houses of Vienna with great frequency and now I really know my Punschkrapfen from my Kaiserschmarren.

The Liebermann novels have been translated into fourteen languages. Why do you think the Liebermann books hold such international appeal to readers?

Crime writing has always been popular. But when I’ve gone on book tours and talked to readers in countries like France or Germany, many of them seem to really like the psychoanalysis. On reflection, this isn’t very surprising. Psychoanalysis and crime investigation have much in common. Clues are like symptoms, and the detective is like a psychoanalyst, attempting to make connections in order to find an ultimate cause. A perpetrator is as elusive as a repressed, unconscious memory. Freud was very aware that psychoanalysis and police detection are close cousins. In fact, he pointed this out in one of his lectures. It is also interesting that Freud was a great fan of detective fiction. One of his patients (known as The Wolfman) wrote a memoir and in it he reveals that Freud - who we usually think of as a reader of Sophocles and Dostoevsky - was a great fan of Sherlock Holmes!

Vienna Blood is set in Vienna, Austria at the turn of the century - what made you choose Vienna as the setting for the story?

Vienna - around 1900 - was an extremely exciting place. Revolutionary ideas were emerging in all areas of human endeavour: Art, literature, philosophy, science, and most notably, psychiatry. One could also argue that Vienna in 1900 was the birthplace of modernism. Psychoanalytic thinking was an essential ingredient of this ‘modern’ outlook. It has shaped how we understand ourselves and our relationships. You may not consider yourself a Freudian, but you certainly think like one. You probably accept that parts of your mind function unconsciously, acknowledge Freudian ‘slips’ and use words like ‘defensive’. W.H Auden recognized this extraordinary depth of cultural penetration when he wrote, after Freud’s death in 1939, that he - Freud - is "no more a person now, but a whole climate of opinion.”

What themes are explored in Vienna Blood that you feel will resonate with what is going on in the world today?

The parallels between Freud’s Vienna and contemporary London are uncanny. The great Habsburg experiment in multiculturalism was threatening to unravel. The streets were beginning to fill with immigrants and people were debating national identity and the future of Europe. It was becoming difficult to keep up with new technologies: cameras, electricity, and telecommunications (the Emperor hated electric lights and Freud all but refused to use the telephone). The Empress had only recently met a tragic end: She was a woman who had rebelled against the demands of a royal existence, a woman around whom a cult of beauty had grown, a woman who had become obsessed with her weight and exercise, and was prone to taking up unpopular causes. The Viennese were obsessed by their royals and the newspapers had just invented something called the celebrity interview. After a period of relative dormancy, antisemitism was escalating at an alarming rate. The mayor of Vienna - a man second in power only to the Emperor - was what we would now call a ‘populist’. A rift had opened up between high and low culture which in turn produced new forms of literature written for a mass market: The spy novel, science fiction, and, from my point of view, of greatest interest, the detective story.

You are a clinical psychologist as well as being a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, how much do you draw on your clinical background when you’re writing fiction?

Pretty much everything I write is influenced by psychology and my experience of clinical practice. This is particularly visible in the Liebermann books, which include a large number of doctor-patient scenes; but the influence of psychology operates at a much deeper level. If the plot is served by a particularly dramatic crime, then I have to be sure that it could actually happen. I have to have a clear understanding of the psychological mechanisms and processes underlying the perpetrator’s behaviour. In a sense, I approach fictional characters in precisely the same way as I would approach a complex patient. In my head, I’ve written up a case study. If I know that a character is underpinned by a plausible psychological formulation, I’m confident that the reader will be more easily persuaded (even if only subliminally) that the character’s crimes are credible.

Vienna Blood is based on your best-selling Liebermann books, how involved have you been with the production?

I made a decision not to meddle for most of the production process. I think this was the right thing to do. Novelists are very attached to their work and tend to have fixed ideas about how it should be translated onto the screen; but of course, television is much more collaborative than novel writing. There are so many more people involved and all of them have skills and talents that I don’t possess. I was, however, consulted about minor plot details and the historical and technical accuracy of the scripts.

How do you feel about having your novel turned into cinematic TV?

It’s curious seeing your work translated from one medium into another. For me, the experience was a little like hearing a favourite piano piece arranged for full orchestra. It’s the same piece - but it sounds very, very different. I once heard the jazz pianist Oscar Peterson talking about his preference for themes that gave him scope to improvise. Naturally, some melodies contain more possibilities than others. I think the same principle applies to characters and stories and I was delighted to discover that Max Liebermann and Oskar Rheinhardt could be reinterpreted and given a new lease of life; that they could still surprise even me. 

Why should people watch Vienna Blood?

People should watch Vienna Blood because they’ve probably never seen a TV drama series about a young Jewish disciple of Freud solving murder cases in Imperial Vienna before. It was the first thing I thought when I was shown episode one: "This is traditional costume drama alright; but it looks and feels fresh." Also, Matthew Beard and Juergen Maurer’s finely nuanced and intelligent performances are compelling.

What do you hope viewers’ reactions will be to the show?

I’m hoping that viewers will reflect on some of the social and political content and recognize its contemporary relevance. Freud’s Vienna shaped much of 20th century history and it continues to exert an influence well into the 21st century. It was where a young Adolf Hitler served his dictator’s apprenticeship and learned a great deal by observing Vienna’s ‘populist’ mayor. The outcome was a global catastrophe. It was also in Freud’s Vienna that Theodor Herzl developed Zionism - which ultimately led to the foundation of Israel; the ramifications of which still animate debate. Ideas have profound consequences and Freud’s Vienna was a powerhouse of ideas. Yet, we rarely make the connection between Freud’s Vienna and what’s happening in our lives or on the news. Back in Freud’s day, there was a lot being discussed in those coffee houses over Punschkrapfen and Kaiserschmarren. We might not realize it but we’re still having the same conversations.