Einstein’s Theory of Relatives: A Personal Look at the Man Behind the Brain

The new TV series about the world's most famous physicist explores his stormy relationships with women, his complex ties with his family and his battles as a Jew in Nazi Germany

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
“Genius” - directed by Ron Howard and staring Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein
“Genius” - directed by Ron Howard and staring Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein Credit: Screengrab
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

In one of the opening scenes of the first episode of the new and star-studded television series “Genius,” directed by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”), Albert Einstein (Geoffrey Rush) is caught with his pants down.

The brilliant Jewish physicist, it turns out, had a stormy affair with his secretary, Betty Neumann (Charity Wakefield) in the early 1920s, and in the above-mentioned scene he professes his love for her and suggests she move in with him.

When she drily replies, “But you’re married,” Einstein erupts in a passionate speech against the institution of marriage and explains to his love interest, who is about 20 years his junior, that monogamy is an invention and that he is opposed to any type of authority.

The new series, which had its world premiere on Thursday as part of the Tribeca Festival in New York City and premiered Tuesday on the National Geographic channel, tries to reveal “the man behind the brain.” Howard, who did a wonderful job of telling the dramatic story of haunted mathematician John Nash in his successful 2001 film “A Beautiful Mind,” told the New York audience that Einstein’s life story, which is full of vicissitudes, was more suited to a 10-hour series than to a 90-minute film.

National Geographic, a channel that is not identified with Hollywood-style full-length features, decided to gamble on “Genius” and has ordered a second season that will deal with another brilliant scientist whose name has not yet been revealed.

The broad scope of television and the generous budget enabled Howard to focus not only on the key moments in the life of the most famous physicist in history, but also on his stormy relationships with women, his complex relations with his family and his political battles as a Jew in Nazi Germany.

The first episode of “Genius” – which is based on Walter Isaacson’s comprehensive biography, “Einstein: His Life and Universe” – jumps back and forth between the period when young Einstein (played by British actor Johnny Flynn) was a student in Zurich in 1896, to his final years in Berlin before he was forced to flee Germany in the 1930s with the Nazi rise to power.

The main difference between “Genius” and the many documentaries devoted to the brilliant scientist is that the series tries to focus on Einstein’s life and his colorful personality, and not just his contribution to modern physics. As Rush summed up so well in a discussion held at the conclusion of the screening: “We were more interested in the theory of relatives than in the Theory of Relativity.”

Perfect casting choice

Rush, 65, who won an Oscar for his role as the pianist David Helfgot in the film “Shine” in 1996, is a perfect casting choice for the role of the Jewish physicist who asks his students to close their eyes and imagine rays of light, in order to try to explain to them (and to the viewers) the complex connections between space, time and matter.

“Genius” - directed by Ron HowardCredit: Screengrab

The first episode covers different periods and reveals various aspects of Einstein’s life: The distant attitude of his father Herman, who abandoned his only child in Munich in 1895 and moved with his mother and his sister to Italy; young Einstein’s total disdain for authority, which was reflected in dismissal of the need to memorize facts and a refusal to study subjects other than mathematics or physics; the decision to give up his German citizenship at the age of 17, claiming that nationalism is a childhood illness (which he derisively termed “humanity’s measles”); and his disappointment after failing all the subjects – except physics and mathematics – in the entrance exams to the Zurich Technological Institute.

After taking the entrance exams for the prestigious institution for the second time and being accepted to study in Zurich, Einstein began to develop the Theory of Relativity. At the same time, the episode presents the main women in the life of the Jewish genius: his first wife Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley), whom he met when the two of them were studying physics in Zurich and his children; his second wife, Elsa Lowenthal (Emily Watson), who begged him to flee Germany and to move to Princeton; and his first partner, a teacher named Marie (Shannon Tarbet), whose family adopted young Einstein while he lived in Switzerland.

A man who hated authority

According to series producer Brian Grazer, who also produced “A Beautiful Mind” (as well as the prize-winning television series “24” and “ Friday Night Lights “), “Einstein is an amazing figure because he opposed any type of authority. He came out against the scientific, political and social establishment. Ron and I read the script by Noa Fink, which is based on Isaacson’s excellent biography, and we both felt that there was material here for 10 hours. We wanted to show the various pressures applied to him, and how he dealt with the far-reaching political changes in Germany and in the United States.”

Flynn said he and Rush met in London in order to work together on playing the same character. "It was a complex and amazing process to play with Einstein’s public persona and watch his speeches together," said Flynn. We didn’t want to try to imitate him, but rather to understand who he was and how he behaved on a daily basis."

Rush added that he didn’t want to be an Einstein emoji - a superficial imitation of such a rich figure. "He had very complex relations with his family and with the women in his life and lived in one of the stormiest periods in human history," said Rush. "He really and truly believed in science and in the power of human intelligence to solve problems, but in the end his life can be read as a Shakespearean tragedy because of his contribution to the development of the atom bomb, which he regretted to his dying day."

Watson, who plays Elsa, said that her character and Einstein were cousins. But Watson thinks that people tended to describe her as “the wife of” and downplayed her value. She actually made a decisive contribution to Einstein’s success, says Watson. They married in 1919, shortly before Einstein became internationally famous after the confirmation of the theory of relativity. She understood better than anyone the significance of this success and helped to shape her husband’s public persona. Among other things, says Watson, she turned a blind eye to his affairs for years to prevent a public scandal or damage to his reputation.

Indeed, the main innovation of the series, says Grazer, is the desire to shed a new light on Einstein’s women, and mainly on Maric. According to Grazer the second episode is devoted almost entirely to the story of Maric, a brilliant young woman of Serbian origin who was the only woman who studied physics with Einstein in Zurich. Grazer said he sought to discover where this woman came from and why history has forgotten her contribution to science.

Samantha Colley, who plays Maric, added that the first time she was told about her she thought that Maric was a fictional character, invented by the scriptwriter. As Colley learned more about her she was embarrassed by her mistake, because she was a brilliant physicist who was treated unjustly. They were intellectually compatible, Colley notes, and worked together on Einstein’s theories.

In the end she had a tragic life. She and Einstein had three children — their eldest daughter, Lieserl, died of an illness. Colley said the series shows how each of them dealt differently with mourning. Their marriage turned miserable and eventually fell apart.

Asked why they decided to begin the series with a scene in which Einstein is in bed with his lover, Howard replies that Rush "told me that every good story must begin with sex or with a quarrel — and we didn’t want to start with a quarrel. But the more serious answer is that Einstein really was a passionate man and we wanted to create a series that would be faithful to the various aspects of his life, including his affection for women and his infidelity."

Despite the decision to devote an entire episode to Maric, it’s hard to ignore the fact that “Genius” follows in a long tradition of popular cultural works that perpetuate the cliché of the “tormented genius” who can be forgiven this emotional handicaps because of his contribution to science. “A Beautiful Mind” dealt with Nash’s schizophrenia and “Shine” focused on the depression and breakdown of pianist Helfgot, while the films “The Theory of Everything,” (about physicist Stephen Hawking) and “The Imitation Game,” (about Alan Turing) had similar plots.

What all these films have in common is that they feature a white man pursued by demons who is torn between his rare talent and exceptional intellectual abilities and his emotional, physical or mental deficiencies. As his secretary, Neumann, says to Einstein: "For an expert who knows everything about the universe, your knowledge of people is amazingly limited."

Asked how one could avoid the Hollywood clichés about the tormented genius, producer Grazer said that he wasn’t at all sure that the cliché was true in Einstein’s case. "It’s true that geniuses have a tendency to develop an obsession with a certain field and sometimes that causes a kind of blindness," said Grazer. "They want to use their exceptional intelligence to solve a riddle or make a scientific breakthrough. This might come at the expense of developing significant relationships, but I'm not convinced it has to be that way."

As for the next season, Grazer said there were three or four subjects being discussed for the coming seasons, and one of them is a brilliant woman.



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