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Home > by MK Raghavendra
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Film Review: Portraying Science in Cinema

Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, 2023) and Dau (Ilya Krzhanovsky, 2019)

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Two recent cinematic exercises one from Hollywood and the other from Russia have recently tried to portray scientific milieus and institutions and constructed their narratives around celebrated scientists heading the projects. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (1923) is well-known and tries to bring alive the activity that led to the nuclear bomb that was used on Japan in 1945. Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s Dau (2019) is represented in cinema by a series of thirteen films constructed around Soviet scientist Lev Landau, or rather, around the Institute for Physical Problems located in Moscow of which Landau was the head of the Theoretical Division. Both projects deal with scientists, their associates and personal lives with actual scientific problems barely touched upon. The films nonetheless examine some issues pertinent today in the two countries and this ‘review’ tries to go beyond evaluating the films to examine that aspect.

Oppenheimer (2023)
The focus in the film is on individual intellectual effort and inner conflict which are key elements in American cinema. In 2022 a film named Tár starring Cate Blanchett made huge waves in the international film circuit. It is set in the esoteric world of western classical music and deals with the trials faced by a fictional woman orchestra conductor. What the film did was to suggest its protagonist’s genius by having her perform well-known pieces of music from Mozart to Mahler. Evidently it was recorded music from celebrity conductors being played but Cate Blanchett’s charisma in the role convinced audiences unfamiliar with such music to believe that they were actually being acquainted with ‘genius’. The charisma of a film personality was being passed off as artistic worth since there is nothing to indicate that artists or literary persons are charismatic like film stars. Alongside were the protagonist’s problems on account of her personal conduct when people’s acts – those in the public space - are under scrutiny.

In 2023 no individual film has made as big waves as Nolan’s Oppenheimer and, by a strange coincidence, this film is not only set in a similarly esoteric realm but is also about a genius. Where the stereotype of the performing artist is someone magnetic and dressed ceremonially, that of the physicist is of someone shy and retiring and Nolan’s film therefore casts a less-known actor Cillian Murphy in the role of the celebrated protagonist. To those unfamiliar with the subject J Robert Oppenheimer was a Jewish- American physicist who contributed to quantum physics in the earlier part of the last century but is better-known as the father of the A-bomb. A film about him will therefore have to deal not only with the A-bomb but with moral and political issues since – apart from the hundreds of thousands dead in Japan – nuclear weapons in America’s possession subsequently sparked off an arms race with the USSR. There is an indication that the USSR planted spies at Los Alamos where the work on the A-bomb project was underway and ‘treason’ becomes an issue where the physicists are interrogated.

There are a large number of issues confronting Oppenheimer and, as may be expected, it is impossible to deal with all of them cogently in three hours. To make matters worse the protagonist was a known philanderer (according to the FBI) and the film therefore accommodates two women in the narrative. Quantum physics – for instance, the notion that a particle is both matter and a wave – is too difficult to explain and the McCarthy era’s political witch-hunting has already been dealt with in many other films (Trumbo, 2015).  With so much to deal with, the film finds it difficult to identify a point of focus and hits upon Oppenheimer’s ‘genius’ as the solution.    

In an essay titled ‘The brain of Einstein’ Roland Barthes (in his Mythologies) writes about popular representations of Albert Einstein in front of a blackboard upon which is inscribed E=MC2 implying an objectification of the physicist’s brain as something capable of producing incredible formulae; but there is no similar formula associated with Oppenheimer. It is also difficult to objectify genius in physics (without a formula) since it cannot also be done through the actor’s charisma as in Tár.

But ‘genius’ is essentially a term that signifies the perceiver’s incomprehension of the human inputs in a stupendous mental achievement and implies incredible ideas coming out of god-knows-where. I initially found Oppenheimer irritatingly incoherent but on careful reflection it would seem that the incoherence of the film is actually part of the design hit upon by Nolan. Since genius is not comprehensible to us, the film’s incoherence is arguably a deliberate manifestation of that incomprehension. The actor Cillian Murphy is hence not required to portray an understandable human being and he simply stares - whether saying something profound, facing the military or the political establishment, or even in a romantic interlude. This is not ‘wooden acting’ but a performance devised to signify the ‘unfathomable’ in human capability. He is surrounded by a host of known Hollywood faces turned towards him, lit up by the light his genius exudes.

The making of the A-bomb and its use in 1945 is without doubt a moral issue but one wonders if torment at the individual level evokes it helpfully. Science cannot be stopped and Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo was perhaps simplistic in suggesting otherwise, that individual scientists could exercise moral choices to do so. What can be decided upon are the military choices made by nation states and the US, for all its humanist rhetoric, has consistently made immoral choices.
Oppenheimer may be objectifying ‘genius’ but it is also trying to delegate responsibility.  What should be rightly portrayed as a national shame is turned into moral doubt for the individual. In Tár, an idea articulated – in response to a denigration of JS Bach’s personal life – is that one should put “the art before the artist.” The proposition is sound: art is not only the work of a person (with whatever moral qualities) but progress for humankind, since ‘art’ can only exist in a historically charted continuum. Arbitrary scribbling or the making of noises cannot become art and there needs to be ‘recognition’ that something qualifies as ‘art’. The same argument goes for science and a discovery cannot become the work or responsibility of one person. 

Dau (2019)
This was part of a project undertaken over several years to set up a structure in Ukraine, an exact replica of the Institute for Physical Problems in Moscow, to get scientists as actors playing the roles and make them live virtually under Stalinist conditions. The multi-disciplinary project led to installation works and the films, which set new standards for authenticity in cinema. It is difficult to see all the films but they are set over a period of nearly three decades and the characters are scientists both Soviet and foreign, military participants in strange experiments that could kill them, canteen workers, Landau’s family and extramarital interests, police officials from the KGB or its predecessors who monitor the scientific activity. Lev Landau, the supposed protagonist of Dau, hardly appears in more than a handful of the films and in some he is so old and decrepit that he is virtually a vegetable, even if a highly respected one.

To give examples of the individual films Dau: Three Days deals with Mrs Landau away on a holiday and the scientist bringing a Greek actress into the home in her absence and the wife returning abruptly. Landau was a perceived philanderer like Oppenheimer but the latter’s relationships are shown to be more weighty (as they usually are in Hollywood) and one of them leads to the woman’s suicide. Dau: Natasha deals with a canteen manager who has had casual sex with a foreign scientist later being interrogated by the KGB official stationed at the institute since having such relationships is criminal and severely punishable. The former film tries to imagine the situation as authentically as possible, the impossibility of conversation between the three under the strain of what it implies not only for Landau’s family life but also for the Greek actress who is not privy to what has happened before but has come there on a casual invitation. In another film Dau: Nora Mother Mrs Landau has been warned by her mother that husbands are not trustworthy.   

Dau: Natasha is terrifying for the detail it incorporates into the interrogation sequence although no violence is shown. The interrogation room – a soundproof chamber with an open toilet in a corner – perhaps takes the portrayal of such interrogations in cinema to a new level. Some of the films include segments that are unwatchable for what they show like Dau: Degeneration in which a number of nationalist Russians (a quasi-Fascist group) are introduced into the institute to introduce political changes into the mindsets of the scientists. Khrzhanovsky used actual members of a Fascist group to play these roles and there is hence no recognition in the characters that they represent ‘political evil’, as might happen in an American film.

There is little actual ‘scientific’ information imparted in the Dau films but the conversation is always intelligent, even in the interrogation scenes. The institute, which is into secret research associated with the defense department, is using the interdisciplinary approach which means that discussions involve both the humanities and sciences. In Dau: Degeneration which is set in the 1960s we see professors of theology including a Rabi from the University of Jerusalem attending discussions. A discussion we are made privy to is one about God, whether it is abstract notion.

The discussion begins when the Christian professor of theology proposes that Man cannot be solely good since all acts are impure and even noble acts contaminated by impurities like pride or jealousy. This leads to the notion of judgment of good and evil and whether people can assume that responsibility. Evidently there are scientists present who find the discussion eccentric and appear skeptical but they are still interested enough to engage gamely with it, purely as an intellectual exercise. The sequence is riveting and I cannot recall intellectual discussions even in the most highbrow of films that operate at such a lofty level without sounding pretentious.  The Dau series has not been rated very highly and one can only attribute that to its demands on the film-going public, which is increasingly resentful when made to reflect.

This brings us to what the Dau series is attempting and I would propose that it is to recreate a period of the past shrouded in secrecy without judging it as would be the natural tendency when the subject is Russia’s Stalinist past. There have constantly been efforts to rewrite history in the USSR and the biases of the present are perpetually intruding into historical reconstructions. Aleksei German attempted reconstructing the Stalin era in two great films My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), which was set in 1935, a year before the commencement of the purges and Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998) set in 1993, the year of Stalin’s death and he makes use of people’s personal memory of the period without taking a position on political rights and wrongs.  

Overall, both Oppenheimer and the Dau films may be dubbed responses to technological society when science is increasingly outside public understanding. Both take us back to periods when the most fateful discoveries were being made in the respective societies by scientists who are justly celebrated although the nitty-gritty of their work is not accessible. The making of the A-Bomb has been well-documented from the human angle and that is the view taken by Oppenheimer since the science itself is barely comprehensible. Soviet science was more shrouded in secrecy (as it still is) and Dau tries to recreate life in a scientific community under such conditions. Dau’s focus, unlike Oppenheimer, is on the scientist as a human being rather than a ‘genius’, which is Nolan’s approach. Its consequences are also less the scientist’s responsibility.   

MK Raghavendra

Courtesy: Oppenheimer-review
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