Einstein Documentary Offers A Revealing Portrait of the Great 20th Century Scientist

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.

You can find free cours­es on Ein­stein’s work in the Physics sec­tion of our col­lec­tion of 550 Free Online Cours­es.

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.

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Comments (3)
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  • Shelley says:

    Amaz­ing how the image of this one man has last­ed beyond so many oth­ers. I think more peo­ple now know “Albert Ein­stein” than know “Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe.”

  • “‘You know, Albert Ein­stein did ter­ri­bly in high school’ (says every high school guid­ance coun­selor at some point).”

    On the con­trary, Ein­stein achieved high grades in near­ly all sub­jects (includ­ing max­i­mums in physics and the math­e­mat­i­cal sub­jects) when he grad­u­at­ed from the Swiss Can­ton­al school he attend­ed in 1895–96 despite being at least a year younger than his class­mates:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Einstein-matura.jpg (max­i­mum grade 6)

    “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.”

    The PBS doc­u­men­tary “Ein­stein’s Wife” cit­ed here has been dis­cred­it­ed. The PBS Oms­buds­man accept­ed that it was “fac­tu­al­ly flawed and ulti­mate­ly mis­lead­ing”:

  • WMLee says:

    The voice-over & images seem to be very much out of sync.

    For instance, voice-over describes scenes fea­tur­ing Nava­jo Indi­ans a full 2–3 min­utes before we actu­al­ly see him w/the Nava­jos, & the same for his friend­ship w/Charlie Chap­lin.

    This non-syn­chro­nious align­ment of film w/voice make the whole film much too dis­tract­ing to enjoy.

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