What ‘Genius’ Gets Right—and Wrong—About the Jewish Einstein
In the popular imagination, Albert Einstein is a benign, whimsical and endearing old man. With his white flyaway hair and dignified mustache, images of Einstein are most often found standing in front of equation-riddled blackboard in elementary school classroom posters or smiling kindly from an inspirational meme. Yet of course, the real Einstein was more complex—though he was brilliant and had his fanciful quirks, in many ways he was also self-absorbed and careless, obsessive and absent-minded to the point of callousness.
It is this multi-faceted Einstein the creators of the National Geographic show Genius, starring Geoffrey Rush, sought to depict. The show, launched this year, is National Geographic’s first scripted series. It attempts to take the Einstein story “beyond the halls of academia to explore his struggles to be a good husband and father, and a man of principle during a period of global unrest,” according to its website. It is based on Walter Isaacson’s 2007 biography Einstein: His Life and Universe. The season finale is tonight.
Einstein led a fascinating life—it is not for nothing that he once said, “If everyone lived a life like mine, there would be no need for novels.” Earlier episodes in the season explore Einstein’s tumultuous personal and professional relationships—it is not until the eighth episode, “Chapter Eight,” which aired June 13, that the series delves more deeply into the famous scientist’s relationship with Judaism and Zionism. “A big part of our story is about a Jewish man who lives in Europe at a time of extraordinary anti-Semitism and the rise of fascism,” says Genius executive producer and writer Ken Biller in a behind the scenes look at the show. “It becomes an immigration story.”
The main arc of the episode shows Einstein and his wife, Elsa, attempting to obtain visas to flee Nazi Germany and come to the United States in 1932. In the show the Einsteins are interviewed by the American Consul General in Berlin, Dr. Raymond Geist, a real-life figure who is credited for intervening on behalf of thousands of Jews over the course of his posting. Geist, played by Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser, is acting on orders from FBI Director Edgar J. Hoover to establish whether Einstein is a communist.
“It’s nonsense,” says Einstein in response to the idea. “It’s like a monkey in a hat riding a dog to a donut factory.”
“I’m concerned that neither of you are appreciating the gravity of this situation,” replies Geist sternly.
“I guess I know a bit more about gravity than you, Mr. Geist.”
Over the course of the episode Einstein, through his firm righteous resistance to ideological vetting and savvy use of the press, persuades Geist to grant him the visa regardless. In the process, Geist is inspired to help more Jews flee the Nazi regime.
The affair is mostly true. On leaving Germany in 1932 Einstein was indeed interviewed by the U.S. consulate in Berlin in the wake of a well-publicized memo to the State Department from the Woman Patriot Corporation, an anti-communist, anti-anarchist and anti-pacifist group of women formed in opposition to the 19th amendment. The memo claimed that “not even Stalin himself is affiliated with so many anarcho-communist international groups” as Einstein. (He was not interviewed by Geist, however, who at the time was on vacation.) Einstein did leave the interview in a huff, and did call the press. The U.S. Consulate did fold to pressure within the day, and Einstein did sign a declaration that he was not a member of the Communist Party.
This proportion, of roughly three parts accuracy to one part dramatization, seems representative of the show. For instance, through flashbacks to 1921, Chapter Eight depicts Einstein rejecting Chaim Weitzmann’s request to accompany him on a Zionist fundraising trip to America. Weitzmann then shows Einstein slides of maltreated Jews, victims of Russian pogroms, and Einstein is convinced. Once in America, Einstein delivers stirring speeches to masses of Jews rich and poor. The poor give generously, indicating Einstein’s moral magnetism. The rich, who are by and large assimilationists, do not. In reality, Weitzmann made his request by telegram and through intermediary Kurt Blumenfeld, an active German Zionist. Einstein did draw large crowds everywhere he went during his 1921 tour, but he did not give stirring speeches, rather letting Weitzmann do the talking as agreed.
These themes, along with others such as rising anti-Semitism in German academia (epitomized in the show by rival physicist Philipp Lenard, whom we see meeting Hitler) and Einstein’s philandering, are all simplified in Genius. But that is the nature of biopics, and Genius does a great job of introducing casual Einstein appreciators to the deeper dimensions of the celebrated icon.
“I think he was a complex man, like all of us,” says Ania Bukstein, an Israeli actor and musician who plays a Soviet spy in the final episode. “I think the show shows a lot of sides of that interesting character, he was very social, he was a lovely person from what you see in the show, but he was also very demanding, very controlling and basically he saw himself first.” She says that Einstein is still celebrated widely in Israel for his accomplishments, and that her first piano lesson was on a street named after the man. “I’m pretty sure that I can tell you that there’s an Einstein Street in every city in Israel, so that says a lot,” she adds. “In Israel, any Jew that is successful, we’re taking credit! He’s a big celebrity, there’s a lot of appreciation, and obviously he is a great man.”