Once upon a time in Vienna
Delve into the mind of Sigmund Freud as Austria’s ORF and Netflix partner for an eight-part series that sees the young doctor test out his unconventional theories while solving a murder conspiracy in 1890s Vienna.
Upon hearing the name Sigmund Freud, one might imagine a man with round, black-rimmed glasses and a neat, white beard, perhaps puffing on a cigar or sitting behind a desk, making notes while listening to a patient. For more than a century, the esteemed academic and neurologist, who founded the practice of psychoanalysis, has long influenced the medical world – and psychology and psychiatry in particular – with his theories on the unconscious, dreams, sexual behaviour and ego.
Now, 80 years after the doctor’s death, television viewers are to be given an insight into his early life in Freud, a thriller set against the backdrop of extravagant 1890s Vienna, famous for its decadence and the dark underbelly of its high society.
It’s a city where mysterious murders and political intrigue clash as the young psychoanalyst, played by Robert Finster, finds his revolutionary theories are met with strong opposition from his colleagues and wider Austrian society. But when he meets war veteran and policeman Alfred Kiss (Georg Freidrich) and notorious medium Fleur Salomé (Ella Rumpf), Freud unwittingly becomes part of an investigation into a murderous conspiracy.
The German-language series, coproduced by Austria’s ORF and global streamer Netflix, comes from writers Marvin Kren, who also directs, Benjamin Hessler and Stefan Brunner, all of whom were intrigued by the idea of placing a young Freud at the centre of a crime thriller.
“There’s this mysterious thing about Freud,” says Kren, who previously worked with Hessler on German gangster drama 4 Blocks. “I’m from Vienna; I was raised here and there’s no other city in Europe where Freud could have had his career because Vienna has a very strange culture and he’s a strange person.
“Viennese people are full of contrasts. They are funny and evil at the same time, and I think this is what kept Freud going in the search of the human soul, because of the Viennese soul. I was very interested to dig deep into Vienna at the end of the 19th century, to catch the atmosphere of this time.”
Acknowledging that Freud has now become something of a parody of himself – often being the subject of satirical cartoons or the source of sexual jokes – Hessler says the writers wanted to approach the psychoanalyst from a fresh perspective, presenting him as a hugely ambitious, revolutionary thinker at the start of his career.
“He was intensely conscious of himself, of the image he wanted to present to the world after [his death],” he says. “Even as a young man, he would imagine the house he was born in receiving a plaque saying ‘Freud was born here.’ He wanted to become a legend and he was very convinced he would. That’s an interesting character – but what was that character like before he achieved his goal?”
That Freud was hugely controlling over his image and perception might have proven to be a stumbling block to the writing team, as he destroyed all his work, letters and papers from the period on which the series focuses. But, in fact, this gave them some welcome creative freedom. So what was the young Freud actually like?
“Full of coke! He’s full of coke and not a person you want to trust,” says Kren. “He’s restless, he’s nervous, he’s full of instinct. He does everything to reach his goals but not because he is an egocentric person. He needs a position in Vienna because he doesn’t have a rich family behind him. That’s the person we start with – someone who fights for his ideas because he believes in them. And he needs people to believe in them to get recognition and money.”
Freud is just one part of the show, however. Other key figures include Fleur Salomé, a necromancer and medium who enjoys the fineries of Viennese high society. She brings to the series a discussion of the occult and how it might blend or clash with Freud’s ideas about the subconscious. Then there’s the crime story and the introduction of Kiss, who discovers various murders around the city.
A less imaginitive show might use the premise of a tired and weary police officer, struggling to crack the case, reluctantly turning to an unlikely figure and their controversial methods to solve the killings. But the Freud writers were keen to avoid this “pedestrian” scenario.
“In that case, the revolutionary aspect would lie in the character of Kiss, who would be progressive enough to ask this crazy doctor, who talks about the subconscious, for help. That’s not what we wanted to do,” Hessler explains. “In our series, Freud sees an opportunity to achieve fame and recognition. He uses the situation more than Kiss tries to use him to solve the cases, and then a whole other dynamic takes over and it turns into something very different.”
Early footage of the series – produced by Satel Film and Bavaria Fiction and distributed by ZDF Enterprises – suggests a haunting, horror-tinged quality to the drama, which the writers say blends a historic backdrop with very modern storytelling, music and camera movements. “The whole world has their clichéd images of our city and we take all those images and do a crazy horror show with it,” Kren says. “We’ve made a new cocktail.”
Central to the look of the show has been production designer Verena Wagner (Willkommen Österreich), who was able to make use of far more material detailing Vienna in the 1890s than the writers could to uncover Freud’s life in the same period.
“We found books that say Vienna was a very dark, rotten and dirty city and that brown was a very prominent colour – even houses were painted brown or dark grey,” she explains. “It must have been a completely different Vienna from the one we know now.”
Filming mostly took place in Prague, which doubled for Vienna, with the production team using the gothic Czech city’s castles and chateaus. Interiors, which were often exquisitely decorated, were built on sound stages, such as those for Freud’s flat and some of the larger Viennese homes.
“The time for sound stage usage was limited so we had to come up with ways for multiple uses of our sets,” Wagner says. “So Marvin and I talked about how people who lived in Vienna wanted to be individual but there was also a desire to be fashionable. They tried to be in with the crowd. So we took the first flat and just changed it a little bit each time for the others. We started with Freud’s flat, so there’s something of his home in every other flat. But if you watch the show, you will not recognise it. It’s in your subconscious!”
To write the series, Kren, Hessler and Brunner held several sessions together before splitting up to pen their individual episodes. Director Kren then left the writing group to begin pre-production.
“To call [having the director in the writers room] helpful would be underselling it,” Hessler says of Kren’s dual role. “The whole process relies on that. When we make up stuff together, I don’t think of Marvin as the director and potential enemy of the writer. He’s just my creative partner. Of course, his expertise and his knowledge of what is possible and what he wants to do is massively helpful and really guides the process.”
Kren also took the lead in discussions with ORF and Netflix, leaving the writers to be able to shape the series without interference. “Marvin is such a great creative partner because he knows my neurotic and sensitive writer’s soul and knows what to shield me from in the discussions he has and the limitations he’s fighting against,” Hessler adds.
While clashes between a public broadcaster in ORF and a global streaming platform such as Netflix might seem inevitable, Kren says both were extremely relaxed about the series, affording him “absolute creative freedom.” ORF’s intention to air Freud in primetime when it launches in Austria in the spring meant there were some discussions about the amount of sex and violence featured, and this will be reflected in slightly different edits for each. Netflix will then follow with its own worldwide roll-out.
As a director, Kren took some inspiration from his work on 4 Blocks, the German drama about a Lebanese crime family operating in Berlin that first aired on TNT Serie in 2017, taking an approach that allows him to work freely with the camera and the actors in a 360-degree setting.
“I don’t want to worry too much about lighting,” he jokes. “I just need the actors’ energy. I work with them for two months [before filming] with our acting coach, Giles Foreman, who has worked on five of my movies. He’s a big influence for me and my creative work and, with him, we develop all the important scenes and really dig deep into the heart of the characters and find combinations. We try to make ‘art explosions’ on the set.”
Kren also likes to work with new actors, something he has continued with Freud’s relatively unknown star Finster (My Brother’s Keeper). The director says Finster has brought a “certain dynamic” to the series, skilfully portraying both the light and dark shades of Freud’s complex personality. “It’s spectacular to watch,” he adds. “I’m very interested to see how people will react to him. He does a magnificent job.”
The eight-episode series was shot across 86 days, with production wrapping in June. Wagner says her job was made trickier by the language barrier she faced in the Czech Republic, though the toughest moment came on the final day of shooting, when torrential rain twice postponed filming.
“You could not do anything. We were really dependent on the weather and it was raining cats and dogs,” she says. “We were filming in a canal and the water was rising. You can’t do anything about it and you feel helpless. The rest of the time, the preparation was wild and we had a tough schedule, but it was all really good. When it ended, I was really sad. Everything was great and you forget the bad things very quickly.”
In the writers room, the biggest challenges came at the start of development, when the trio considered how to bring explanations of Freud’s scientific theories into the drama as seamlessly as possible, without either leaving the audience confused or filling the script with clunky paragraphs of exposition.
“The subconscious, the id and the superego are ideas most people are thinly aware of, but many people aren’t aware of them at all,” Hessler says.
“What had to be achieved in the first episode was to explain that to the audience and have them understand what Freud’s theory is and what about it was so groundbreaking at the time. You can have him explain it in Freudian terms, which is very difficult to follow and quite boring and dry. In the end, I found a metaphorical way for him to explain it, so I was very happy.
“Another thing that turned out to be very complicated was Freud’s family structure, which was incredibly strange. He was married to his own sister-in-law – his wife’s brother was married to Freud’s sister – which isn’t something you see everyday and was quite difficult to reveal to the audience without it being explanatory.”
However, it is those complicated family dynamics that ground the series away from the central crime stories. “The show is very tense and there are a lot of dark, creepy moments. When he’s together with his family, you can breathe a little,” Kren notes.
Freud and his theories are no strangers to television drama. Other historical crime series, such as US series The Alienist and British-made Vienna Blood, have similarly explored the use of his theories to profile and track criminals, while Poirot’s David Suchet portrayed the psychoanalyst in a 1984 six-part BBC biopic.
However, ORF and Netflix’s show is the first to imagine how a revolutionary young Freud might have been received when he first began to pitch his new ideas and how 1890s Vienna might have reacted to him.
It also stands out because, as Kren concludes, “it’s made by Austrians. We Austrians breathe Freud from the first moments we walk on the Viennese streets. It’s here; it’s in our genes.”