Albert Einstein was a master of physics, but his talent in personal relationships was decidedly underdeveloped. A new 10-episode series, Genius, airing on the National Geographic Channel, focuses on the facets of Einstein’s life where he was anything but a virtuoso.
Genius is a dramatization, not a documentary. The series reveals the human side of the famously brainy physicist — through Einstein’s numerous romantic liaisons and his reactions to world political events, including two world wars and his departure from Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, although Einstein’s personal life reveals insights into his character, Genius ends up sacrificing science for the sensational. The first episode, for instance, opens with a murder followed by a sex scene.
Viewers shouldn’t expect to learn much about the science of Einstein’s discoveries, at least based on the first two episodes that were available for review. The explanations are vague enough that those unfamiliar with Einstein’s theories will understand little, and those who know them won’t learn anything new.
Based on Walter Isaacson’s book Einstein: His Life and Universe, the television series leapfrogs from one time period to another, contrasting the scientific enthusiasm of the brash young Einstein (played by Johnny Flynn) with the more sedate ruminations of the elder, established physicist (Geoffrey Rush). While time traveling from one period to another, the show plays up Einstein’s fascination with time.
The young Einstein is portrayed as a brilliant, willful character. After dropping out of high school, he fails an entrance exam to Zurich Polytechnic. He is finally admitted a year later, in 1896, after additional schooling. There, he skips classes, challenges professors who are reluctant to teach cutting-edge theories and studies mainly on his own.
Meanwhile, the young Einstein’s love life makes for surprisingly dramatic vignettes. In one scene, his lover Mileva Marić (Samantha Colley) — a fellow physics student in Zurich who would later become his first wife — realizes Einstein has yet to break things off with his first flame, Marie Winteler (Shannon Tarbet). Marić smashes a teapot against the wall and then, distraught, berates Einstein for his thoughtlessness.
Despite his smarts, Einstein is not always the hero of his own story. As he plays fast and loose with his lovers’ hearts, viewers may find themselves siding with the women. As the show recounts Marić’s childhood in Serbia and her struggle to become a physicist when few institutions were willing to educate women, Marić sometimes seems the more impressive member of the pair. (Marić doesn’t continue on in physics, after failing her exams and becoming pregnant.) Einstein eventually marries Marić in 1903, then divorces her in 1919, a few years after beginning an affair with his cousin Elsa (Emily Watson), who becomes his second wife.
The older, famous Einstein possesses the same stubborn determination as his younger self. Despite the anti-Semitic sentiment in the run-up to World War II, Einstein, a Jew, initially resists leaving Germany. But circumstances eventually change his mind. In 1922, Einstein’s friend, German foreign minister Walther Rathenau, who is also Jewish, is assassinated. And then prominent anti-Semitic scientists, including Nobel laureate Philipp Lenard, denounce Einstein. By 1933, the situation becomes unbearable, and Albert and Elsa leave for the United States.
Overall, Genius portrays Einstein as a complicated human, not just a cartoonish brainiac. Those unfamiliar with Einstein’s personal life will see the scientist in a new light. But be prepared for an emphasis on drama, sex and love stories, not science.