“Genius,” a new 10-part series about Albert Einstein on the National Geographic Channel, starts off with a bang.
First, we see Einstein’s friend, the German foreign minister Walter Rathenau, shot and blown up in his car by a gang of Nazis.
Then we cut to Einstein, played by Geoffrey Rush, in his study, making love to his secretary, Betty, against a blackboard covered with equations. It is June 1922 and he is 43, already famous for overturning the universe with his theory of relativity, being attacked in Germany as the proselytizer of “Jewish science” and in danger of becoming the next Nazi victim.
“Move in with me,” he says.
She protests that he is already married.
“I love Mozart and Bach,” Einstein says. “Why can’t I love you and Elsa?”
Frustrated, she declares that he might know a lot about the universe, but nothing about people.
If your image of Albert Einstein is the sockless frizzy-haired wizard who wandered the streets of Princeton, you might be taken aback to first encounter the great wizard with his pants down. But this is not your father’s biopic. It’s about time to meet the real guy behind the cuddly accent and the curvature of space-time.
In the past three decades, scholars from the Einstein Papers Project, sponsored by Princeton University Press and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, have dived into troves of previously sealed or unknown correspondence. What they found is a lot about Einstein’s life that belies the images on T-shirts and calendars.
Einstein did have an affair with a secretary named Betty — Betty Neumann, to be precise — with the grudging permission of his wife, Elsa. Rathenau was indeed Einstein’s friend in a nation that was beginning to tilt ominously to the right and from which Einstein eventually fled to the United States. Here, he wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that brought about the effort known as the Manhattan Project, which would build history’s most terrible weapon, the atomic bomb. And, oh yes, he transformed our understanding of space, time and gravity, bequeathing us the expanding universe and black holes.
“Genius,” which has its premiere on April 25, is the tale of how all this came to be, and it’s a tense binge-worthy psychological thriller full of political and romantic melodrama. Einstein, as portrayed here by Rush and Johnny Flynn (as the young Einstein) is an errant lover, a draft dodger, an adulterer, a clueless rebel, an arrogant self-centered dreamer and a stubborn, curious soul. His first wife, Mileva Maric, played by Samantha Colley, is a beautiful, moody and determined nerd, struggling to deal with her emotions about the young Einstein.
Billed as National Geographic’s first scripted series, “Genius” was produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Gigi Pritzker, as well as several others, and was written by Ken Biller, who is also listed as the showrunner.
It is largely based on Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography “Einstein, His Life and Universe,” one of a literary tsunami of Einstein books published in the past 20 years. I myself contributed to this flood.
If you just want to understand his scientific insights, this series is probably not for you. Howard mentioned in notes distributed to the press that he didn’t understand relativity before making “Genius” and doesn’t now, either. Indeed, the worst parts of the shows I have seen so far are the obvious tell-us-what-we-need-to-know scenes, in which Einstein talks science to colleagues who sit there glazed or baffled before bursting into applause, as if they have never heard this stuff about time or light before.
But if you want a sense of what it takes to get under the universe’s skin, of the emotional and psychological price of scientific achievement and celebrity and a sense of the historical currents in which Einstein swam, you could, at least on the basis of the three episodes I have seen, hardly do better.
There will be those who protest the melodrama, saying justifiably that science is why we care about Einstein, and why he is important to begin with. The tragic fact is that Einstein’s scientific celebrity is so bright that it has blotted out the man behind it, the man who did the work. It’s like staring at the sun.
So Einstein becomes mythologized as almost beyond human, to the detriment of all those who would follow in his footsteps and feel they have to live up to Superman. They need to know that they are entitled to lives of passion and mistakes; the same qualities that drive them to pierce the quantum slipperiness of reality might wound their friends and lovers.
After flitting back and forth in time during the first episode, “Genius” settles into a narrative of the young Einstein, a high school dropout in Munich, and his efforts to attend the Federal Polytechnic in Zurich. There he meets and falls in love with Mileva Maric, a Serbian woman who also wants to be a physicist.
The story as filmed hews fairly closely (so far) to the outline of Einstein’s actual life. But there are some caveats. The writers and producers of “Genius” have done an artful, one might say very imaginative, job of filling in moments of Einstein’s life in a plausible manner.
Their imaginations have been helped by the fact that Einstein left behind some 55,000 letters, but of Mileva we have very little; no diary, for example.
Inevitably, however, they cut corners and fudged some details.
Among the missing pieces is one of my favorite parts of the Einstein story: when he and Mileva take a romantic trip through the Alps and she gets pregnant, an event that will shade the rest of their lives.
Whether such details matter depends on whether you are a television critic — focused on the logic and entertainment value of the story — or a historian who wants to understand the world in all its jigsaw maze of cause and effect like the patterns of particle collisions and decays that scientists at places like CERN try to reconstruct in their quest for new physics. In the latter case, it is the small unexpected details that count.
We know how the story ends. Einstein and Mileva have a daughter who disappears from history, they eventually marry and have two sons. He reinvents the universe, divorces Mileva and marries his cousin Elsa, flees Germany and becomes the sad-eyed sage of Princeton, watching from the sidelines as his former colleagues usher the world tragically into the atomic age.
As Einstein once wrote to his sister, Maja, “If everybody lived a life like mine, there would be no need for novels.”
At the time, he was just 22. He didn’t know the half of it.