Another day, another film/TV show/play in which a famous Jew is played by a non-Jew.
I have talked and written about this many times — about how it’s a question not of acting but of context: minority casting being presently dominated by the notion of authenticity, the question is why that doesn’t apply to Jews, and what that means for how people see Jews — so I shan’t rehearse it again.
But there is another, more complex issue thrown up by the casting in Oppenheimer. Any biopic on such a serious subject as the creation of the atomic bomb needs to delve deep into the psychological underpinnings of the narrative.
My sense of a possible omission in that regard was alerted reading Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian saying that the film “doesn’t quite get to grips with the antisemitism Oppenheimer faced”.
Which is interesting, as it was certainly a central issue in the physicist’s life and career. He entered Harvard just as the university established a quota system to limit Jewish entry. While in Berkeley, he attempted to secure a position for his colleague Robert Serber but was told “one Jew in the department is enough”.
Meanwhile, Einstein is played by the also not-Jewish Tom Conti. Forget for a minute how much outrage would usually be inspired by casting arguably the most iconic member of a minority not from that minority, and consider why Albert and J Robert were meeting in America. It’s because of course in 1933, Einstein, who had been lecturing in the US, was unable to return to a Germany under Nazi Rule. His books were being burnt, and his cottage had been stolen to become a centre for the Hitler Youth.
Point being, the context of Oppenheimer is inseparable from antisemitism — both on the micro-level, in American society, and the macro, the existential threat posed by Nazi Germany. When I discussed the movie on Twitter — where the bringing up of the issue of non-Jews continually being cast as Jews tends to lead to scores of responses saying “it’s called acting, mate” and “oh I suppose only murderers can play murderers now” — the writer Naomi Alderman chose to respond, very insightfully, by pointing out the vast amount of Jewish physicists whose work was vital to the discovery of nuclear fission, and therefore to the Manhattan Project.
American atomic scientist Julius Robert Oppenheimer (1904 - 1967) arrives in Paris to give a series of lectures at the Faculty of Science. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
It’s too many to list in this article, but beyond Oppenheimer and Einstein, she mentions Enrico Fermi (Jewish wife, fled Italy), Hans Bethe, (Jewish mother, Jewish fiancée, fled Germany), Otto Frisch, Neils Bohr (Jewish mother), Lise Meitner and many others. “I mean it’s not everyone but good luck doing it without them,” she concludes.
Something is going on there. Obviously, a lot of great scientists at the time happened to be Jewish refugees. But in a time of intense peril, the vulnerable, I think, dream of magical power. It is not coincidental that the creators of Superman, born during the war and originally a fighter of Nazis, were Jewish.
The atomic bomb is not a magical weapon but it must have seemed so, in its initial stages, the idea of being able to destroy this terrible existential threat, in one go, with your own existential-destroying reality.
This is not to say — let me be clear — that the Jews are to blame for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That blame lies with the American government and military at the time, keen to end the war but also to send a message to the Soviets of their nuclear capability.
But even physics has an emotional undercurrent, and the emotional undercurrent for J Robert and Albert Einstein and the other Jews involved in trying to make this weapon before the Nazis did, was fear and desperation.
Which is why Alderman is correct to say, “I don’t really understand how it’s possible to make a movie about the Manhattan Project without talking about Jewishness.” Oppenheimer does include scenes where mentions of J Robert’s heritage are present and correct, but the film lacks, perhaps because of the casting — and this is where authenticity casting, whatever you feel about it, has some artistic value — any profound sense of that ethnicity being key to who he was, the secret driver of his work at Los Alamos.
This may be because there is, from some of our storytellers presently, a fatigue, I think, a boredom, with Jews, and the strange incessant way that Western history has, often to their misfortune, placed them at the centre of itself. This boredom is what leads to Jewish erasure, and that erasure is doubled down upon by the complacent casting of non-Jews as these great and complex Jewish figures of history.
I’ve called Oppenheimer J Robert in this article, because his first name was in fact Julius. He, however, insisted it stood for nothing, because he didn’t want people to think he was Jewish, or that Jewishness mattered much to him — and there is a sense in which Oppenheimer the movie has gone along with that. But to do so is to miss, perhaps, the deepest undercurrent of the story.
David Baddiel’s show ‘Talking Books’ is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh Festival August 2nd-12th