Albert Einstein in Four Color Films

We all think we know just what Albert Ein­stein looked like — and broad­ly speak­ing, we’ve got it right. At least since his death in 1955, since which time gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren around the world have grown up close­ly asso­ci­at­ing his bristly mus­tache and semi-tamed gray hair with the very con­cept of sci­en­tif­ic genius. His sar­to­r­i­al rum­pled­ness and Teu­ton­i­cal­ly hang­dog look have long been the stuff of not just car­i­ca­ture, but (as in Nico­las Roeg’s Insignif­i­cance) earnest trib­ute as well. Yet how many of us can say we’ve real­ly tak­en a good look at Ein­stein?

These four pieces of film get us a lit­tle clos­er to that expe­ri­ence. At the top of the post we have a col­orized news­reel clip (you can see the orig­i­nal here) show­ing Ein­stein in his office at Prince­ton’s Insti­tute for Advanced Study, where he took up a post in 1933.

Even ear­li­er col­orized news­reel footage appears in the video just above, tak­en from an episode of the Smith­son­ian Chan­nel series Amer­i­ca in Col­or. It depicts Ein­stein arriv­ing in the Unit­ed States in 1930, by which time he was already “the world’s most famous physi­cist” — a posi­tion then mer­it­ing a wel­come not unlike that which the Bea­t­les would receive 34 years lat­er.

Ein­stein returned to his native Ger­many after that vis­it. The Amer­i­ca in Col­or clip also shows him back at his cot­tage out­side Berlin (and in his paja­mas), but his time back in his home­land amount­ed only to a few years. The rea­son: Hitler. Dur­ing Ein­stein’s vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor­ship at Cal Tech in 1933, the Gestapo raid­ed his cot­tage and Berlin apart­ment, as well as con­fis­cat­ed his sail­boat. Lat­er the Nazi gov­ern­ment banned Jews from hold­ing offi­cial posi­tions, includ­ing at uni­ver­si­ties, effec­tive­ly cut­ting off his pro­fes­sion­al prospects and those of no few oth­er Ger­man cit­i­zens besides. The 1943 col­or footage above offers a glimpse of Ein­stein a decade into his Amer­i­can life.

A cou­ple of years there­after, the end of the Sec­ond World War made Ein­stein even more famous. He became, in the minds of many Amer­i­cans, the bril­liant physi­cist who “helped dis­cov­er the atom bomb.” So declares the announc­er in that first news­reel, but in the decades since, the pub­lic has come to asso­ciate Ein­stein more instinc­tive­ly with his the­o­ry of rel­a­tiv­i­ty — an achieve­ment less imme­di­ate­ly com­pre­hen­si­ble than the apoc­a­lyp­tic explo­sion of the atom­ic bomb, but one whose sci­en­tif­ic impli­ca­tions run much deep­er. Many clear and lucid pré­cis of Ein­stein’s the­o­ry exist, but why not first see it explained by the man him­self, and in col­or at that?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New­ly Unearthed Footage Shows Albert Ein­stein Dri­ving a Fly­ing Car (1931)

Hear Albert Ein­stein Read “The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence” (1941)

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe Explains Rel­a­tiv­i­ty to Albert Ein­stein (in a Nico­las Roeg Movie)

When Albert Ein­stein & Char­lie Chap­lin Met and Became Fast Famous Friends (1930)

Einstein’s The­o­ry of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty Explained in One of the Ear­li­est Sci­ence Films Ever Made (1923)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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