Albert Einstein is the patron saint of slackers redeemed. We’ve all heard some version of his late-bloomer story: “You know, Albert Einstein did terribly in high school” (says every high school guidance counselor at some point). Most of us normals like to see him this way—it bucks us up—even if he was anything but your average low achiever. The above 2006 profile of Einstein by PBS’s “American Masters” documentary series, Albert Einstein: How I See the World, takes the opposite tack, surrounding him with the aura of a hero in a Hermann Hesse novel. The film begins with William Hurt’s narration of Einstein’s solo trek through the Alps at twenty-two, during which he “longed to grasp the hidden design, the underlying principles of nature.” Over the intrigue conjured by Michael Galasso’s haunting, minimalist score and a montage of black-and-white nature films, narrator Hurt intones:
Every once in a while there comes a man who is able to see the universe in a totally new way, whose vision upsets the very foundations of the world as we know it. Throughout his life, Albert Einstein would look for this harmony, not only in his science, but in the world of men. The world wanted to know Albert Einstein, yet he remained a mystery to those who only saw his public face and perhaps to himself as well. “What does a fish know of the water in which he swims?” he asked himself.
After this sententious beginning, with its strangely outdated pronoun use, Hurt tells us that those who knew Einstein best saw a little of him, and the film goes on to document those impressions in interviews: colleague Abraham Pais comments on Einstein’s love of Jewish humor (and that his laughter sounded like “the bark of a contented seal”). Hanna Loewy, a family friend, describes his ability to look at “many, many dimensions, whether they be proven or not,” and to see the whole. Intercut between these statements is archival footage of Einstein himself and commentary from Hurt, some of it questionable (for example, the idea that Einstein was a “scientist who believed in God" is tendentious, at best, but a subject best left for the endless bickering of YouTube commenters).
It’s a bit of an Olympian treatment, fitting to the subject in some respects. But in another sense, the documentary performs the function of a hagiography, a genre well-suited for encomium and reverence, but not for “getting to know” its subject personally. The film places a great deal of emphasis, rightly perhaps, on Einstein’s public persona: his vocal pacifism—in which he joined with Mahatma Gandhi—and statements against German militarism, even as the rising fascist order dismissed his work and denounced the man.
But while Albert Einstein: How I See the World provides a compelling portrait and offers a wealth of historical context for understanding Einstein’s world, it leaves out the voices of those who perhaps knew him best: his children, wife Elsa, or his first wife, Mileva. (Their divorce gets a brief mention at 15:20, along with his subsequent marriage to first cousin Elsa.) Einstein’s troubled personal life, revealed through private correspondence like an angry post-divorce letter to Mileva and an appalling list of demands written to her during the deterioration of their marriage, has received more scrutiny of late. These personal details have perhaps prompted PBS to reevaluate Mileva's influence; rather than “little more than a footnote” in his biography, Mileva may have played a role in his success for which she never received credit, giving Hurt's gendered narration something of a bitter personal twist.
None of this is to say that a documentary treatment of any public figure needs to dredge the family secrets and display the dirty laundry, but as far as learning how Einstein, or anyone else of his stature, saw the world, the personal seems to me as relevant as the professional. PBS’s documentary is very well-made, however, and worth watching for its production values, interviews with Einstein’s friends and colleagues, and archival newsreel footage, even if it sometimes fails to truly illuminate its subject. But as Hurt’s narration disclaims at the outset, maybe Einstein was a mystery, even to himself.
The film will be added to the Documentary section of our collection of Free Movies Online.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.