By Christopher Sharrett.

This story is well-known…. We are deprived of the factors transforming him into the destroyer of worlds, as well as those making him into the pathetic cowboy, and the smart aleck who could not mount a sensible defense in the face of imbeciles without being a stupid, juvenile comedian.”

I recall watching the 1978 TV miniseries Holocaust when it premiered and having a reaction similar to, as I learned, a number of journalists. The series, about the murder (in the context of the Nazi rampage), of a German-Jewish family named Weis, has a crudity that made some dismiss the series out of hand, although it became useful as a teaching tool, introducing those who won’t read to the major events and places of the Nazi genocide. One issue, however, is the Hollywood-handsome cast, and how few of Holocaust’s actors were in any way recognizable as Jewish citizens of Western Europe. We don’t want caricature (such as with Bradley Cooper’s [another non-Jew] absurd, outsize prosthetic nose for his role as Leonard Bernstein in the forthcoming Maestro), but we see here an old problem, namely the Hollywood refusal, for the most part, to deal in ethnicity not Anglo-Saxon. We therefore have name-changing, hair-straightening, and make-up that will make actors conform to preferred white models. Holocaust might be the problem writ fairly large in its day; the more contemporary model might be the summer 2023 hit, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Oppenheimer. This film, paired with a far larger 2023 hit, Barbie (which gives acceptable politics to the doll once condemned by feminism), together formed a calculated phenomenon called “Barbenheimer,” together making well over a billion dollars and keeping theaters open a trifle longer, fading as they are in the wake of “streaming” and other asocial media consumption.

Oppenheimer: Early Reactions to the Christopher Nolan Movie – The Hollywood  Reporter

The story of the “father of the atom bomb,” Oppenheimer presents a crucially important tale about a Jewish intellectual who stands in a pantheon, reminding us of the Jewish mind’s centrality to the advancement of human consciousness, and essential resistance (there are important exceptions that tend to prove the rule) to reactionary forces in the human narrative. There are people whose contributions to the human intellect are extraordinary. They include Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Kafka – I’ll add Bob Dylan, our Nobel (I say “our” to represent both Jews and the generation of the 1960s, the true “greatest generation,” if we must have one, for its inquiry), and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who transformed our notion of Being. In the film, J. Robert Oppenheimer is played by Cillian Murphy, an Irish actor popular for his role in the “streaming” TV series Peaky Blinders. Oppenheimer did such impressive business that Murphy is already a strong candidate at the next Oscar ceremony. But in no way can I say he conveys anything like the essence, and not the details, of the scientist-poet who made the hellish “gadget” (as it was nicknamed during its development).

I have thought of Oppenheimer as the “scientific Kafka.” There is some physical resemblance; both, as young men (Kafka did not have a long life) had shocks of dark hair, Oppenheimer’s worn to the right. They had pointed features, and above all notable gazes. Kafka’s eyes were penetrating, looking into the horrors of the century which at times seems his alone. Oppenheimer’s eyes, and countenance, were poignantly sad. Both men understood persecution, at personal and intellectual levels, Kafka the great master of persecution narrative in The Trial and other works, many destroyed, Oppenheimer, tormented in school, locked in a freezer by bullies. He tended to bring on the torment, since for all his intellect he could not understands the culture of the bully, as child or adult, unwisely showing off his intellect.

Life, Career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the 'Father of the Atomic Bomb'

Toward the end of his life, the Oppenheimer sadness seems overwhelming, not only because of the loss of government clearance (for a man who permitted the U.S. government to exist by allowing its “victory”), but because of the truth he witnessed. He is known for, among other quotes, the apocalyptic line from the Bhagavad-Gita, said by Vishnu to the Prince: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” This, in the context of a late interview, was filmed in tight close-up, as Oppenheimer wiped an eye, holding his pipe. He is an old and stricken man, still not really advanced in age. In the Nolan film, we get the line, in one form or other, several times, once when he is in the middle of sex. Sex, as an affirmation of life over death, isn’t inappropriate, but here it is simply adolescent, lacking in instruction. This, with other moments, loses Oppenheimer.

As a Jew, Oppenheimer is lost many times. He was well aware of Hitler’s plans for the Jews of Europe simply by watching the lunatic and taking the daily press seriously, also knowing that what his research would unleash would destroy Europe. But he was too late, faced with the prospect of “winning the war” by wiping out Japan. Anti-Semitism would be addressed only in the affirmative, with Oppenheimer the archetypal propitiatory victim.

The story of the ‘father of the atom bomb,’ Oppenheimer presents a crucially important story about a Jewish intellectual who stands in a pantheon, reminding us of the Jewish mind’s centrality to the advancement of human consciousness, and essential resistance to reactionary forces in the human narrative.”

This topic needs attention. To me, the book by far the most useful on the dropping of the atomic bomb is Gar Alperovitz’s The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995). This meticulous book dispenses once and for all with notions that the bomb was the only way to bring the “Japs” to heel, and that the bomb was the only way to “win” the war in the Pacific, which would have been at the cost, so the story goes, of millions of lives had the bomb not been used. Japan, by late 1944, was surrounded, facing the prospect of a Russian invasion, out of food and other provisions. The emperor might well have demanded fealty to the bitter end, but this would assume he was of the same cynical pragmatism as the American brass, the same savage immorality as Harry S. Truman, our “common sense” president, whose down-home wisdom is revealed in Merle Miller’s interview book Plain Speaking (1973). The same plain-spoken man informs us of his lack of conscience, so when he made the decision for genocide, he didn’t mull over it, he wasn’t a “crybaby” (as he accused Oppenheimer of being). He was the man from Missouri, the “show me” state, the state that opted for slavery, bringing about the Missouri Compromise on slavery in 1820, thus assuring the ultimate cataclysm. Truman needs much examination indeed. An entertaining start is the 1982 satirical documentary The Atomic Café, which shows Truman on camera announcing the bomb, preceding his remarks with a little smirk to the newsmen, then, putting on his serious face, implores god to make sure the bomb is used for “His purposes.” A priest appears, as if to bolster Truman, suggesting that people take “protective devices” with them into the home fallout shelter once the H-bomb became a reality. Truman was the common-sense guy who got behind the National Security Act of 1947, creating the alphabet soup of intelligence organizations including the CIA. He argued for “Soviet containment,” but the U.S. was equally contained, as Truman prepared the country for McCarthyism. For a time, especially during the Reagan era, Truman Democrats stood out in the halls of state, as people who had no truck with liberalism and the Sixties rabble. Oppenheimer had reason to cry.

Einstein and Oppenheimer: the Real Relationship and Desperate Alliance

The men who opted to blow up two fragile cities filled with women, children, and the elderly, were nothing but monsters. But was Oppenheimer among them? Of course he was. This Universal Man, who thought that ultimate questions could be answered more by the humanities than the sciences, was a cheerleader. In the Nolan film, Murphy/Oppenheimer addresses his scientists at Los Alamos post-bomb. At one point, a shaken “Oppie”, as he was known, envisions his audience, the skin melting from their bodies. This is the moment of Oppie’s empathy, so it seems. But what about the Japanese children with melting skin hanging from their bodies like so much dripping chocolate? Is the newsreel footage of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki catastrophe simply passe? Or is it in bad taste, judged so by the man who made three Batman films?

The destruction produced by Oppenheimer would have a place in the science-fiction cinema, where giant bugs and lizards would be used as inadequate metaphor, since Oppenheimer showed us that in an instant the human race could become a myth. Edward Teller, the Joker/Lex Luthor/Dr. Strangelove of the tale, drove the point home a thousand times over with his H-bomb. Here, Oppie becomes the most inert, impotent Superman, shriveled from being out of the sunlight too long, bathing instead in the poison of the bomb.

It has been reported that after the success of the bomb, Oppie was known to stride about Los Alamos in a manner reminiscent of Gary Cooper in High Noon. This makes sense. He wanted, for a long time, to replace the sissy with the superman, the boyish Jew with the macho man. General Leslie Groves, in charge of the project, let Oppie wear the slouch hat, the bomber jacket (or the sport coat), even an Army uniform (he was reminded that this was too much), and place the project in New Mexico, where he could ride horses and survey the land like a real cowboy.

The complexity of the Oppenheimer personality is lost in this movie, which becomes grindingly tedious, especially in its last hour.”

I couldn’t help in watching this film but be reminded of the TV series Breaking Bad, about which I’ve written. The show is about a family man, a scientist (he knows much, but his peculiar sense of self consigns him to high school instruction) also in New Mexico, who stops being a teacher, deciding instead to manufacture an addictive drop, a perfected one, in massive quantity, as he goes about bolstering his reckless ego and annihilating domestic life. Is Walter White a symbol of American masculinity equal to Robert Oppenheimer? Certainly not. White would not go crying to Harry Truman. Oppenheimer retained the ability to cry, even on the cusp of the TV western’s hegemony, which White would have enjoined. And White could care less about recommending to Einstein that T.S. Eliot be brought to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, to meld the humanities to advanced physics (F.R. Leavis might have brought up his tirade against C.P. Snow and the “two cultures,” but I think Oppenheimer would have had Leavis’s favored answer – we have only one culture).

Oppenheimer - Plugged In

The complexity of the Oppenheimer personality is lost in this movie, which becomes grindingly tedious, especially in its last hour. We are faced with endless shots/countershots of Oppie vs. bureaucrats out to nail him for not getting with the program, and being sympathetic to “commies.” This story is well-known. We need its drama, and the factors causing Oppie’s promotion by the press after the bomb (the basics, are, again, well-known), and his utter dismissal as a sacrificial lamb at the start of the Cold War. We are deprived of the factors transforming him into the destroyer of worlds, as well as those making him into the pathetic cowboy, and the smart aleck who could not mount a sensible defense in the face of imbeciles without being a stupid, juvenile comedian. He seemed to understand that Shakespeare, Donne, T.S. Eliot, and the French Symbolists, might save us, not theoretical physics. Or perhaps these coupled together. We’ll never know.

There is a compelling documentary of some thirty years ago entitled The Day After Trinity. There isn’t a lot of revelatory data, but it doesn’t engage in posturing, as is the case with OppenheimerTrinity gives us some privileged moments of Oppenheimer, as much an enigma as the artists and scientists he admired. Could he, had he not crumbled, informed us why we exist? He seemed to toy with the preposterous but central question; it’s entertaining to speculate, but perhaps a waste of time, especially as the humanities are dismissed.

Christopher Sharrett is a professor emeritus in film studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Oppenheimer: The Jewish Question, Bad Conscience, the Bomb”

  1. As usual, Chris, your keen historical and cultural insights are fully on display. Thanks for another provocative essay. (After only one reading, am I wrong in discerning ambivalence on your part regarding Oppenheimer the man?)

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