TV

Daniel Brühl says Netflix's The Alienist is like a CSI origins show

Delving into the heads of killers was seen as fake science in the 1890s but new Netflix series The Alienist shows how little society has moved on

A pioneering psychologist, a -headstrong secretary and a -newspaper illustrator might not sound like an ideal comic trio. But in Netflix series The Alienist, that’s okay. There is very little to laugh about in this dark and disturbing drama set in 1890s New York.

Instead the 10-part series serves almost as an origins story for TV crime drama. We witness the early days of criminal psychology courtesy of Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), back when delving into the minds of criminals was seen as fake science – not least by many in the police.

To try to understand the mindset of such a killer, was something shocking

He is joined by illustrator John Moore (Beauty and The Beast star Luke Evans) – a cartoonist who also acts as the nearest thing to a crime scene photographer that existed back in the day – and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) – who is bidding to break down boundaries by becoming New York’s first female detective to forge a small group of maverick crime fighters.

“We see so many CSI shows now. It is interesting and also endearing to go back and follow these pioneers who are having brand new ideas in their field,” says Brühl, who plays the ‘alienist’ of the title.

We were halfway through filming when we realised, unfortunately, how relevant so many aspects in the show still are

“Kreizler is a modern thinker, a liberal man, a pioneer. And he is very close to what I read in the biographies of Freud, Breuer and Jung. These were incredibly brave and tough men because they were facing -obstacles and had so many enemies. They were not well respected. They were seen as dangerous charlatans.

“Psychology had only been born 20 years prior. Before that it was seen as a brand of philosophy. So it was new and fresh. There were still so many superstitions and religious beliefs. To have people who were willing to see a human where others saw a monster, and to try to understand the mindset of such a killer, was something shocking.”

When he read the script, Brühl was thrilled. Not only with a first lead role in television – having previously impressed as Alex in Good Bye, Lenin!; alongside Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbender in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, as Niki Lauda in Rush and the antagonist in the last Captain America – but also at the chance to move to New York.

“My wife, who is a psychologist (so she was able to tell me what was accurate in the script and in my performance), wanted to move to there. So I couldn’t believe my luck,” says Brühl. “When I found out it was filming in Budapest, it irritated me at first. Although I soon realised it made total sense, so much grand architecture of precisely the right period. It gives you the joy of feeling like a little boy time-travelling.”

The Netflix millions meant an attention to detail that appeals to the 39-year-old – who grew up on dark tales back home in Cologne, Germany.

“I was fascinated by Edgar Allan Poe, dark romantic German stuff like [ETA Hoffmann’s] The Sandman, and books like Jekyll and Hyde. I read all of the Sherlock Holmes books when I was 12 – I didn’t do anything else – then was obsessed with Jack the Ripper when I was 16.”

But if the laughs are few and far between in The Alienist, there is at least a lot to analyse – not least how little society has moved on in the last 130 years. There is the gulf between the extreme wealth of financier JP Morgan and police commissioner/future president Theodore Roosevelt and the victims of a serial killer targeting impoverished young boys forced into prostitution who share the same city. Then there is the whiff of corruption in the political arena, the harassment faced by Howard as she joins the investigation. The show also depicts racism and anti-Semitism that feels no compunction to conceal itself.

“It is kind of sad,” says Brühl. “We were halfway through filming when we realised, unfortunately, how relevant so many aspects in the show still are. We thought, ‘it is 2018, what happened to progress?’”

The Alienist is available now on Netflix

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