Most people recognize Albert Einstein as the brilliant German-Jewish physicist responsible for the theory of relativity and the equation E = mc2, but the man behind the science is considerably less well known. The new 10-part National Geographic series “Genius” seeks to remedy that by dramatizing Einstein’s achievements, struggles and relationships against a historical backdrop that spans the seven decades of his life.
Adapted from “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson, and executive produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Gigi Pritzker, the series stars Johnny Flynn and Geoffrey Rush, sharing the role of Albert Einstein. The two actors worked with the same dialect coach and compared notes via Skype to ensure consistency in their portrayals of Einstein in his youth and older years.
National Geographic’s first scripted series, “Genius” was shot on location last year in the Czech Republic. It was originally conceived as a movie, but Pritzker, who had optioned Isaac-son’s bio, spent “many years trying to fit the scope of his life into a movie, and it became very clear that that just wasn’t doable,” she said at a panel discussion in January.
Howard directed the first episode and, speaking on the same panel, said he was eager to direct “world class actors facing challenging material. The suspense comes from the fact that society came so close to not benefiting from Albert Einstein. Sometimes it was his own doing, his own foibles, but very often it was rigid thinking and sometimes bigotry that threatened to prevent the world from having what this remarkable individual had to offer. It’s not just a story of achievement, it’s also a story of struggle.”
That view is made clear from the beginning of the first episode, which opens in June 1922 with the assassination of a Jewish Reichstag minister, establishing just how dangerous times were becoming for German Jews. Einstein was 39 at the time.
“It was important to set the scene of what Germany was like in the 1920s, what kind of world Einstein was living in,” Noah Pink, co-executive producer and writer of the first and fourth episodes, said in a telephone interview. “In 1922, Hitler was a young man and just starting the National Socialist Party, but there were a lot of other right-wing groups that were prevalent at the time and very dangerous. Jews were being blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I. Einstein was on a hit list.”
From there, focus shifts to the younger scientist, whose nonconformist thinking and rebellious behavior put him at odds with his father and teachers. “He wanted to be a professor, but he pissed off so many people that he couldn’t get hired,” Pink said. “He was forced to take a job as a patent clerk and he was depressed about it, but it was one of the most fruitful periods of his life, scientifically.”
Pink said presenting science in an understandable way was “an everyday challenge” for all of the writers, who relied on the expertise of a physics adviser to the production.
Pink related a story, included in the series, about the time Einstein was asked for his input on a film script about the making of the atomic bomb. “Einstein had a lot of notes. His main concern was that they weren’t getting the science right,” Pink said. “Knowing that story, I — and all the writers — tried to do our best to stay as true as possible to the science.”
Even so, their goal “wasn’t to get everyone to understand the intricacies of relativity, but to grasp what Einstein was going for and how he saw the world differently,” Pink said. “It’s not a science lesson. It was very important to pay homage to his work, but it was equally important to tell a story about a man with all his flaws.”
Einstein’s complicated love life — his marriages and affairs — also plays out in the series. “He didn’t believe in monogamy,” Pink said, noting his surprise at that detail and many others he learned while immersing himself in Isaacson’s source material, biographies and Einstein’s papers and letters, quotes from which were incorporated in the script.
Also used were Einstein’s views on religion and his relationship to Judaism and God, which were “ever-changing,” Pink said.
“His parents were Jewish but not practicing; his dad had a bit of an animosity toward Judaism and religion in general. To rebel against his father, Einstein’s reaction was to become extremely Jewish. He observed the Sabbath and kept kosher as best he could. When he gets to college and begins to read philosophy, he becomes atheist and believes the answer is in science, not spirituality.
“But as he makes his big discoveries, a new kind of spirituality grows in him, because the more he figures out about the universe, the more he realizes it can’t just be a fluke. He had a very human relationship with his religion, and I can certainly sympathize with that,” Pink, who is of Romanian and Polish-Jewish ancestry, added.
“I was always intrigued by his gall and his quirky humor and his brilliance, but after going down this two-year road, I became fascinated by this man who was not only a brilliant scientist but also a brilliant writer, philosopher, musician,” Pink continued. “He was a humanist, an outspoken pacifist, a Zionist. He was in many ways the first international celebrity. He lived through two world wars. He’s an icon, but few people know what he went through, who he was.”
True to its title, the series also explores the concept of genius, which Pink asserted “isn’t just something you’re just born with. Genius has to be cultivated your entire life, and it stems from an innate curiosity about the world and your surroundings. No matter his age, Einstein never stopped looking around him, taking nothing for granted, and asking questions.”
If he could ask Einstein anything, Pink said he’d request “a reading list, ask him advice on how to stay curious, and I’d ask him to explain general relativity, because no matter how hard I study it, it still confounds my brain,” he said, laughing.
“Genius” premieres at 9 p.m. April 25 on National Geographic Channel.