Originally published in 1994, The Alienist is a historical mystery novel set in New York City circa 1896, where a string of immigrant boys are being found gruesomely mutilated. In the book, the fictional Dr. Laszlo Kreizler leads a motley team of investigators in solving these murders by way of then-new methods that include psychological profiling and fingerprinting. In the TNT mini-series of the same name, Daniel Brühl (Rush; Captain America: Civil War) plays the lead while other characters include Kreizler friend/newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans of Beauty and the Beast), intrepid police department secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning of The Twilight Saga) and then-police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty of Boardwalk Empire).
The Hungarian-German Kreizler role seems tailor-made for Brühl, who is a polyglot fluent in myriad languages including German. In addition, the actor’s wife, Felicitas Rombold, a psychologist, was able to give her spouse insight into his character to go along with the other preparation he undertook.
“When the role was offered to me, the first thing I did was to read the book, which I did in a day and a night. I was like a 12-year-old with a torchlight under the blanket. It’s one of these books that you can’t put away because it’s fascinating on so many levels. Obviously, it’s a gripping psychological thriller. But it is also a fascinating portrayal of New York City at the time, with very compelling characters. It also deals with the beginning of so many interesting sciences,” he said. “In my case, psychology, was just born 20 years before that. It was so interesting to dive into that universe. Because my wife is a psychotherapist in real life, she gave me stuff to read and put me in touch with criminal psychologists. It was a very entertaining history lesson for me to do that show.”
With primary shooting done in Budapest, The Alienist series convincingly captures the vibe of turn-of-the-century Manhattan, right down to the exterior shots. Scenes include tenement life and cobblestone streets chock-full of horse-drawn carriages and extras clad in period clothing. The intersection of fact and fiction is part of what intrigued Brühl about this project. The actor also admits that while this story is set roughly 120 years ago, the themes of sexism, violence and xenophobia that are woven throughout Carr’s novel and are important narrative threads in this television show have an unfortunate tie-in to contemporary times.
“That combination of having real characters and fictional ones is something I found so interesting. In Germany, we only know Roosevelt as the president, so it was fascinating to learn about him and where he was coming from…and how active he was in fighting corruption in New York City,” Brühl said. “What we realized halfway through the show is, unfortunately, how current this story is if we think of class division, sexual harassment and immigration. Rosalie Swedlin, one of the producers, said the other day that if this would have been done right after it was published in 1994, it probably wouldn’t have been so relevant as it is today.”
The Alienist airs on TNT on Monday nights.