Never-before-seen footage surfaces of Einstein driving a 'flying car'
The film shows the physicist (who didn't even know how to drive) enjoying his time on a Hollywood soundstage.
Becca Bender, a student studying archival science at New York University, was working at Lincoln Center last year when she stumbled upon some cardboard boxes. The boxes were labeled "Godowsky Home Movies." And at the bottom of one box was a 35-millimeter film canister that had the word "Einstein" on it.
"Is it the Einstein? We had no idea what we were going to find," Bender told From The Grapevine about the discovery.
In the early days of cinema, films were made from a nitrate base, and were extremely flammable. "This reel was no different," she said. "We didn't know if we were going to find a pile of dust."
Luckily for Bender – and Einstein fans around the world – the film had miraculously remained in pristine condition. Not wanting to disturb any of the footage by placing it in a projector, Bender and her team at Lincoln Center brought the footage to a film lab where each slide was looked at manually under a magnifying glass. What they saw was nothing short of remarkable.
It was Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa driving a car on a Hollywood soundstage. In a precursor to the green screen, the car had been parked in front of a rear projection screen. Moving backdrops appear on the screen behind the parked car, so it makes it seem like the Einsteins are on a whirlwind adventure – even driving through the clouds at one point. It was probably for the best that the car was parked. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist famously didn't know how to drive. (He wasn't so good at sailing either.)
"It was in beautiful, beautiful condition. The image is just pristine. It was overwhelming, quite truthfully," Bender said. "It's like archive nerd heaven."
So how did Einstein and his wife end up at a movie studio?
It turns out that the scientist had an enduring relationship with Hollywood, and was friends with Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios. Einstein and Charlie Chaplin discussed the music in the actor's films and even took out a patent for one of the first automatic cameras, with a self-adjusting aperture and lens.
David Schwartz, the chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, sees Einstein's fascination with film as inspiration for his science. "He often talked about the power of imagination," Schwartz said. "He often came to his theories through visualization. There was something very cinematic about it."
On February, 3, 1931 – while on a research trip to California – Einstein and his wife got a tour of the Warner Bros. backlot. They were shown the car and hopped in. The next day's New York Times proclaimed: "Trick exposure shows scientist and wife speeding in auto and ascending to clouds." The article's opening sentence? "Professor Einstein was surprised tonight into loud and long laughter."
Bender, the archivist who unearthed the footage, sensed that enjoyment when watching the film for the first time. "The thing that's so wonderful about it is it's all joy," Bender told us. "Here's Einstein who, of course, is one of the most beloved figures ever, this totally universal figure, total humanitarian, and you get to see him in this way that we're not used to seeing him. It's so relatable."
The footage premiered last week at the Orphan Film Symposium, a multi-day event that features various neglected and long-lost films. People from all over the world attended the screening. The original reel will now be stored at the Library of Congress, which has a special vault for nitrate film footage. The digital version will reside at the Einstein Archives on the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"As an archivist," Bender added, "to be able to put something out in the world that's so joyful, it feels like this real kind of gift."
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