By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Poor, possibly misunderstood Werner Heisenberg — the German nuclear physicist and the pivot of Michael Frayn’s riveting 1998 three-character play Copenhagen, a series of dramatic equations with poetical resonances. In 1941, Heisenberg (Hank Stratton), then head of Germany’s weapons-development program — his movements watched and his conversations bugged by the Nazis — traveled across occupied Denmark to visit his former mentor, Niels Bohr (Len Cariou), and Bohr’s wife, Margrethe (Mariette Hartley), Jews exiled from Germany. What could Heisenberg have been thinking?
Frayn poses this question (before Frayn, it had already been the object of endless speculation) in several enactments of that fateful meeting in which the two men took a brief walk together. Each enactment is prodigiously researched and provides Heisenberg with alternative motives, like a series of variations on a theme.
So what really happened on that afternoon in 1941 Copenhagen? Years later, Bohr and Heisenberg gave contrary reports of what was said during their hike (a scene that Frayn keeps offstage), while historians came more and more to demonize Heisenberg and canonize Bohr as a paragon of virtue. As Frayn takes this now commonly held conclusion and spins it beyond recognition, that conclusion’s padding flies in small pieces all over the stage. After all, as the play points out, Heisenberg died without a single human death by nuclear fission on his conscience. Bohr, on the other hand, later served as a kind of imperial counselor to Enrico Fermi and J. Robert Oppenheimer at the University of Chicago’s A-bomb project, and is therefore implicated, tangentially at least, in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents.
On the stage, Heisenberg seems at first to be warning the Bohrs of troubles to come, and hinting at ways to protect them. But wait a minute — perhaps he’s just being cagey and has shown up to seek help in obtaining a cyclotron for the German war effort. Again and again, time is spun back and the moment replayed, revealing the possibility that Heisenberg might be about to tell some German secrets . . . or perhaps he’s merely there to show off for his old teacher; next time ’round, he might be seeking absolution; and, in another replay, he may have been instrumental in saving the lives of these and other Jews.
The reasons behind history’s discounting of Heisenberg’s presumed scruples date back to 1937, when he was denied a major teaching post, despite his rising reputation as a scientist. For it was known by the then politically ascending Nazis that he’d worked with Jewish colleagues — Albert Einstein, Bohr and Wolgang Pauli head that list. And though Heisenberg was a patriot, having stood up for Hitler in political discussions and rejected job offers from outside the Fatherland, he was not sufficiently patriotic, according to an anonymous article in Das Schwartze Korps, the weekly magazine of the German SS — the kind of article that was so often a harbinger of an unannounced late-night arrest and deportation. As the impetuous Heisenberg expressed his outrage over the accusation and his contempt for his accusers, his friends turned suddenly icy, and soon after he was brought in for questioning in the basement of SS headquarters at Berlin’s Prinz-Albert-Strasse.
Heisenberg was not beaten, but he had been warned. His wife later said that the scene gave him nightmares for years. (According to a description in David Bodanis’ E=MC2, a mocking sign hung on walls of bare cement: “Breathe deeply and calmly.”) In light of his interrogation, then, it’s not altogether surprising that Heisenberg was among the first to sign up when the German Army’s Weapons Bureau began its work in September 1939. By 1940, he had delivered a report to the Third Reich on the plausibility of an atomic bomb, and had taken command of two production sites — in Berlin and at the University of Leipzig.
What issurprising is that, although Heisenberg was at the time obviously working to develop nuclear capabilities for the Third Reich, he also failed repeatedly to deliver. Were these failures due to circumstance, incompetence or, perhaps, to his own designs on sabotaging a Reich he pretended to serve? Heisenberg’s colleagues at the University of Leipzig said he was a brilliant theoretical mathematician but a shoddy engineer — and defensive to boot, unable to abide criticism. Still, as Allied forces were bombing his nation into oblivion, there was Heisenberg, heading the German A-bomb project, leaping to wrong conclusion after wrong conclusion and, as dramatized in one of Copenhagen’s most revelatory moments, even failing to tabulate a crucial formula on the critical mass needed to ignite a nuclear chain reaction.
Finally, there was Heisenberg’s unfathomable visit to the Bohrs in 1941. He must have known how much his old friends would now despise him, and the journey was fraught with danger on almost every front. On that unaccountable act of courage, as on so much else, the playwright speculates. And because Frayn keeps replaying the reunion in the moments directly before and after the men’s historic, enigmatic amble out of doors, we’re denied the spectacle of that confrontation and left instead to examine the tracks and the traces, observing, like these very mathematicians, the movements of particles before and after a collision, in order to piece together the implications of an unknowable conversation.
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