The National Geographic series Genius offers a worm’s eye view of the most well-known scientist in the world, Albert Einstein. Starring Geoffrey Rush as the elder Einstein and Johnny Flynn as his younger self, the series is adapted from Walter Isaacson’s 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe.
Adapting for the screen the life of a scientist is no task for the faint-hearted. The moving picture derives its thrust from the rough and tumble of an action-packed plot, while science and scientific discovery are, by their very nature, monotonous undertakings that consume those who devote their lives to them.
Writers and filmmakers therefore opt to focus on stories that have enough drama aside from scientific triumph which, at least in fictionalisation, ends up as a mere footnote to other aspects of the scientist’s life. The Theory of Everything, for instance, offered much more on Stephen Hawking’s tortuous love life than on his seminal work on string theory.
So too, on current evidence, does Genius. In a non-linear narrative that flits between the end of the 19th century and Nazi Germany, the story presents Einstein as a man full of passion not just for science but other, more tender pursuits.
Born into a German Jewish family in 1879, Einstein showed an early disregard for classroom pedagogy, preferring to spend time with books and conduct his own experiments. This created friction between him and his father, a businessman and manufacturer of electrical devices, who worried that his son’s quixotic ideas would ruin his prospects.
That was not to be. Einstein not only received his diploma from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, but went on to complete his PhD there in 1905, the same year he proposed both the groundbreaking special theory of relativity and his ideas on photoelectric effect.
Genius, which is 10 episodes long, takes a leisurely look at this life. In the first two episodes, we are offered glimpses of Einstein’s time in Zurich, where he fail his first attempt at the entrance exam, and Aarau, to which he is dispatched to prepare afresh for the test. In Aarau, he falls in love with Marie, the daughter of his host Jost Winteler.
In Zurich, he meets Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley), a fellow student at the Polytechnic and the only female candidate in the mathematics and physics department. A romance blossoms, prompting Einstein to break off his engagement with Marie.
Throughout his life, Einstein could be both astonishingly callous and extraordinarily generous, and Flynn ably captures early instances of this dichotomy.
The other storyline is of the mature Einstein, already a Nobel laureate and German treasure, who faces the rising tide of anti-Semitism. His ideas about his homeland begin to turn after the 1922 assassination of Walther Rathenau, the country’s foreign minister, who was a friend and a fellow Jew.
Now married to his second wife Elsa (Emily Watson), Einstein finally accedes to her request to move abroad. But even a decorated scientist must answer questions about his radical past. The second episode closes on a tense interview at the US Embassy in Berlin, as Einstein is asked to convince Federal Bureau of Investigation director J Edgar Hoover, who wants to sanitise America of Communists, of his leanings. Rush makes for a close likeness of Einstein, complete with the trademark mustache and the shock of fuzzy hair.
In the popular imagination, Einstein is the genius who imagined into existence complex but fully realised theories about how the universe works. But his private life, as perhaps all private lives are, was no less monumental. Genius goes behind the scenes to fashion a life that was as touched by politics, love and hubris as it was by pioneering scientific accomplishment.