Thriller set in old New York blends history, fiction
“The Alienist’’ — TNT’s suspenseful new series adaptation of Caleb Carr’s 1994 historical crime novel premiering Monday, Jan. 22 — opens on a snowy night in 1896 New York, as police officers stumble upon the butchered body of a boy prostitute on the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge.
Memories of Jack the Ripper’s crime spree in London just a few years earlier are on the mind of police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), so he enlists former Harvard classmate and psychologist Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) to lead an investigation outside the law for insights into the killer.
Roosevelt has at least a grudging respect for this alienist, as psychologists of the period were often known. Newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) also joins the team, along with resourceful police secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning).
Kreizler, a character who resembles Sherlock Holmes in several respects, offers a complex set of acting challenges to German-Spanish actor Bruhl, who started his research with a big advantage: His wife is a psychologist.
“She was my best advisor, and put me in touch with people who were crime psychologists and others in that field,” he explains. “And then obviously I did a lot of preparation in terms of reading a lot about Freud and Jung and the other psychologists of the time in Vienna.”
He wanted to steep himself in those books because Kreizler, a European, would have emerged from just such a background, the actor adds.
“Probably he absorbed all those groundbreaking changes in psychology,” Bruhl says. “There’s also a very dark side about him and his life, although I don’t want to give too much of that away for those who haven’t read the book. To some extent, though, he’s haunted by that, and he’s especially sensitive in dealing with anything that has to do with children.
“You also see a tender, sensitive side when he’s with his patients. He can be very cocky and unpredictable with his colleagues and friends, which I found interesting, because you can tell he’s genuinely fond of a couple of people, but that doesn’t stop him from manipulating them for his purposes if he needs to.”
Bruhl also loves how vividly the story drives home the sharp divide between rich and poor in New York during the Gilded Age, a disparity that keeps surfacing during this investigation.
“It was very fascinating to dive into that world and to explore the rich part – the Vanderbilts, the Roosevelts, the upper class – and then go to the tenements and learn about the history of immigration in melting-pot New York,” he says. “That’s what’s so great about this show: It’s not only a thrilling crime story but also a fascinating history lesson in many ways.”
Executive producer Jakob Verbruggen, who also directs some of the early episodes, says U.S. viewers may be startled by how resonant this story feels.
“The New York that we see here tells us all about … an economic crisis, people coming to this country looking for new hope, a status quo that is being preserved by an older class of near-royalty,” he says. “There is a lot of similarities between the world of the late 1800s and the world we are living in now. It’s about people searching for hope in a world that is actually resisting. Kreizler is a pioneering crusader, a lonely warrior, who represents new ideas. He wants to look at the world differently, which means he has to fight a lot of resistance. The story almost holds up a mirror to us, in many ways.”