An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Copenhagen - Movie review

(Before he was Bond he was Heisenberg)

 I find Daniel Craig a versatile and gifted actor and hope he does not suffer type-casting as James Bond. In 2002 he played Werner Heisenberg in a PBS TV movie about two nuclear physicists. An adaptation of a stage play by someone I never heard of before, Michael Frayn, I did not expect Copenhagen to draw me in so quickly. Many of the best "talking" movies do that - Mindwalk, My Dinner with Andre, Swimming to Cambodia - all have this in common. As movies grow more frenetic with increasingly unbelievable "action" sequences and pacing so fast you're out of breath while sitting down, I find it comforting to watch a film that reminds me that sometimes just two people talking can prove far more interesting.

Last year I read about Heisenberg and learned a fascinating mystery about his actions during WWII. As a young and brilliant man, he earned his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics at the age of 22. Two years later he met the Danish (and Jewish) physicist Niels Bohr (played by Stephen Rea). They immediately became friends, worked intensively together for 2 years then remained very close, frequently visiting each other through the 20s and 30s. Heisenberg often accompanied Bohr's family on skiing trips and other of Bohr's family outings. The numerous long walks the two men took together characterized a relationship that all who knew them described as "father and son." There exist in many people's lives a great, very close, friendship that can, if it ends, feel as devastating as the end of a marriage. The start of World War II ended this famous friendship between the Jewish "father" and the German "son."

 Bohr, 16 years older than the young German Heisenberg, had won a Nobel prize in 1922. Many do not know who he was or what he did, but Bohr made contributions to physics every bit as important as Einstein's. And sadly most Americans know Heisenberg only as the alias of Walter White from the TV show Breaking Bad. But Heisenberg revolutionized our understanding of the atom and of the relationship between experimentation and observation. He won his Nobel prize in 1932.

 In September 1941 Germany had conquered nearly all of Europe, Britain barely escaped invasion, the Soviet Union and the United States had not yet entered the war and Denmark had already spent a year and a half under German occupation. After having remained in Germany after many other atomic scientists had fled, Heisenberg found that his friendship with Bohr cooled. Unknown to Bohr before the visit, Hitler put Heisenberg in charge of the Nazi atomic energy program. For reasons which to this day remain unclear, Heisenberg choose this time to visit Bohr.

 After a very awkward initial conversation, the once father-son duo warmed to each other again. After dinner Heisenberg asked to go for a walk with Bohr, just like old times. Normally they would not have returned for hours, but a very short time later, maybe 5 to 10 minutes, they returned separately, with Bohr looking - according to his wife - angrier than she ever remembered seeing him before or since. Heisenberg awkwardly excused himself then left. They did not speak again until after the war -- a very brief conversation which did not end well either. Then never again.

 From this point the details grow hazy and increasingly less reliable. The two did not agree on most of what they said to each other that night. And although historians, journalists as well as their family members, friends and colleagues often asked, they never elaborated beyond the following. The only part they agree on is that Heisenberg started by asking Bohr about the morality of science and scientists, saying that scientists could decide what politicians and other leaders learned about atomic energy; thus, they could easily tell people that development of an atomic weapon would prove too expensive with too uncertain an outcome. According to Bohr, Heisenberg then inquired or assumed that Bohr was in contact with American and/or British agents concerning the feasibility of making an atomic bomb. He urged Bohr not to tell them it was possible. Past this point we have no clue what transpired next other than Heisenberg said something which led Bohr to end the conversation abruptly then head back to his house.

 What exactly did Heisenberg say, and what about what he said sent Bohr storming off? No one, including Bohr and his wife, ever thought Heisenberg sympathized with the Nazis. Did Heisenberg's decision to remain in Germany make Bohr feel betrayed? Did Bohr think Heisenberg was trying to trick him somehow? Obtain advice or insight for making a bomb? No one can know for certain. Did Heisenberg accept the job from Hitler in order to sabotage the Nazi development of atomic energy? We do know for a fact that he did not tell Albert Speer, the Nazi to whom he reported, about plutonium. In addition, he made some strangely amateurish mistakes (amateurish by brilliant physicist standards), including a mathematical error (Heisenberg was a mathematician). But after the war in England he made an inexplicable mistake when explaining to a colleague how the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima could work. During the war Heisenberg's project never even built a functioning nuclear reactor. The wannabe reactor they tinkered with did not have any lead shielding, which means if it ever worked it would have fried them all. Did his lab lack shielding because of Heisenberg's incompetence or because he had no intention of building a real reactor and therefore did not bother with shielding? If he botched the project on purpose why didn't he admit to doing so after the war, while safely in allied custody?

 I admit that the possibility that Heisenberg purposely ran Nazi Germany's atomic project just well enough to stay in control of it without ever coming close to giving Hitler the bomb appeals to me. I'd be happy with any story of anybody who pulled one over on the worst monster in history. But Heisenberg's own behavior muddies every attempt to pin down his motivation and intentions. It all comes back to Copenhagen in September 1941. What was Heisenberg trying to ask or tell Bohr? Did he somehow botch what he wanted to say or did he explain himself clearly enough to let Bohr discover something new about his former friend's character?

  Copenhagen mixes what's known with educated guesses and intelligent speculation. The three characters - Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr's wife - appear as ghosts who re-hash the conversations of that evening over and over again with each other, with different iterations of that day shown in flashbacks. In order to understand the possibilities the audience must understand at least some of the science the two men pioneered. The "ghosts" do a good job of explaining the essential principles of quantum physics - you do not even feel like you're listening to a science lecture. This allows the playwright to fill in the blanks of that evening with some intriguing possibilities, including the rather shocking one that Bohr saved humanity from Hitler getting his hands on an atomic bomb. Thankfully what really happened remains only an interesting mystery to think about for a while.

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