Genius, physicist, philosopher, elder statesmen, amateur violinist and lothario. Those are among Albert Einstein’s personas that come to light in “Genius,” a 10-part miniseries produced by National Geographic based on his life and times. Like the acclaimed book on which it’s based—“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson—the series seamlessly moves between Einstein’s early life in Munich and Zurich and his growing celebrity in Berlin and at Princeton University. British actor Johnny Flynn’s exceptional portrayal of the young Einstein dovetails with Geoffrey Rush’s brilliant performance as the elder Einstein. Rush, sporting Einstein’s trademark halo of white hair and bushy mustache, inhabits him both physically and emotionally.
As Isaacson’s affecting biography suggests, Einstein’s teachers noted his deep intellect, as well as his resistance to authority. The latter was a quality that did not fare well with German discipline and may have accounted for his failing the entrance exam to the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich. Einstein was admitted the following year, where he distinguished himself as a dreamer and a rebel. Isaacson asserts that in Einstein’s student years, his motto was: “Long live impudence! It is my guardian angel!”
During his time at the Polytechnic, Einstein also courted the only woman in his class, Mileva Marić, a brilliant student and Serbian national three years his senior. The two became lovers and Marić gave birth out of wedlock to a daughter who died as an infant and whom Einstein never saw. The couple married a year later in 1903 and had two sons.
Einstein spent years applying for teaching positions in physics all over Europe until he secured a clerk position at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, in 1905. He was 26 years old. Isaacson notes the job turned out to be fortuitous for Einstein. “Had he been consigned instead to the job of an assistant to a professor, he might have felt compelled to be overly cautious in challenging accepted notions,” he writes. Instead, his time in the patent office ushered in an era of unprecedented productivity and creativity, during which Einstein authored five scientific papers in rapid succession. Among them was his explanation of the special theory of relativity, which produced perhaps the world’s most well-known equation: E=mc².
Although things at home were often tempestuous, Marić made critical contributions to her husband’s work. As conveyed in “Genius,” she was not only Einstein’s intellectual equivalent, but was also an unnamed co-author of his papers. Without Marić, Einstein might not have changed the course of theoretical physics. Marić was as critical to Einstein’s work as Marie Curie was to her husband Pierre’s Nobel-prizewinning research in radioactivity. The point is made in a heavy-handed scene, in which Curie tells the Nobel Committee that he will not accept the prize unless his wife is recognized with him. In contrast, long after Marić’s academic dreams have died, Einstein offers his Nobel money to her as part of their divorce settlement.
In 1913, things turned around for Einstein when Max Planck, a stalwart of Berlin’s science establishment, offered him a university professorship and the directorship of a new physics institute. At just 34, Einstein became the youngest member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. With Marić and the couple’s two sons still in Zurich, Einstein began an affair with his divorced cousin Elsa Einstein. The couple married in 1919 and remained in Berlin until 1932. National socialism was on the rise, and copies of “Mein Kampf” turned up at the local tobacconist while Nazis roughed up Jews in Berlin’s streets. At his wife’s urging, Einstein accepted an offer from Princeton.
But before the Einsteins could come to America, Raymond Geist, a consular officer, coolly played by Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell of “Mad Men” fame), interrogated Einstein about his politics. Einstein had become a famous pacifist and socialist, two stances that caught the attention of then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. In the end, Einstein cooperated with Geist, inspiring him to go on to issue several thousand visas to Jews escaping the Holocaust. In his later years, Einstein’s Jewishness and Zionism became an important part of his life.
“Genius,” however, is occasionally marred by provocative moments, which come across as gratuitous. In the series’ very first scene, Einstein is shown with his pants around his ankles, having sex with his secretary. But the series as a whole reveals Einstein’s complexity. Not only was his political life complicated, but for all his charm and wit and noble deeds—including overcoming his reluctance to participate in the creation of the atomic bomb as an act of American patriotism—Einstein’s personal life was, as his friend Max Born, the physicist, said, “totally detached from his environment and the human beings in it.”
“Genius” eventually reconciles Born’s observation with the Einstein of history books and the Einstein who famously stuck out his tongue in a picture that became a popular college dorm poster. Overall, the series is a compelling drama that mostly tackles clichés and presents a three-dimensional portrait of one of the smartest men in history.
The “Genius” finale airs on Tuesday, June 20. The entire series can be watched here.