'Adventures of a Mathematician': Film Review | Palm Springs 2020

Palm Springs Film Festival
An uneven but compelling look at the dawn of the nuclear age.

This European production tells an unknown true story about a Polish-born mathematician who joined the Manhattan Project at the end of World War II.

A film that touches on immigration as well as the dangers of nuclear weapons certainly sounds timely. Adventures of a Mathematician, a European production having its world premiere in Palm Springs, only partly delivers on its promise. Writer-director Thor Klein retrieves an unknown story about one of the key players involved in the Manhattan Project near the end of World War II. The film lacks the excitement to make a splash in a crowded marketplace, but it achieves many haunting moments.

Klein is German, and the film is a German-Polish-British co-production, but most of it is in English. The main character, Stan Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski), is a Polish-Jewish mathematician who managed to get a fellowship at Harvard and then was recruited to join the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. According to the film, his knowledge of mathematics and also his sideline as a card shark led him to make important contributions to the construction of a hydrogen bomb and also to the earliest exploration of computer technology.

The film’s main interests, however, are in sociological and moral issues rather than scientific ones, and here is where the film overreaches in trying to handle more ambitious themes than a 102-minute movie can encompass. Stan and his younger brother Adam (Mateusz Wieclawek) have managed to immigrate to America, but they are deeply concerned about the fate of their parents and sister left in Poland.

The Holocaust theme is treated sketchily, but it does help to explain why several of the European-born scientists and mathematicians working at Los Alamos were so intensely motivated to build an atomic bomb that might help to defeat Nazi Germany. But when Germany surrenders in May 1945, a large part of their motivation for building a weapon of mass destruction is undercut. Some of the scientists question the need to continue their work, but once a massive project has been set in motion, it is not likely to halt. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki leave some of the young scientists ashamed and mortified. One man in particular (eloquently portrayed by Sam Keeley) is appalled by the killing of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, and he resigns from the program.

The chief antagonist to these concerned scientists is Edward Teller (Joel Basman), the most fervent advocate for the construction of a hydrogen bomb that would make the atomic blasts in Japan seem almost bush league. Our hero, Stan, falls somewhere in the middle. He is clearly troubled by American involvement in the massive destruction of the Japanese cities, and he tangles with Teller, but he continues working at Los Alamos after the war.

Despite some weaknesses in the characterization, the charismatic Tlokinski gives an affecting performance. As Ulam’s wife, Esther Garrel, the French actress who had an important role in Call Me By Your Name, also makes a vivid impression. All the performances are solid, but Klein’s script fails to do justice to the full cast of characters. For example, the character of Klaus Fuchs, who later defected to the Soviet Union, barely registers at all. And when Stan’s brother announces late in the film that he has decided to cut all his ties with Judaism, this is another provocative theme that just doesn’t get enough screen time to come into focus.

The film is, however, handsomely made. Cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru and production designer Florian Kaposi bring the locales to life. The haunting musical score by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz is another of the film’s strengths. Mathematician always tantalizes, even if it doesn’t do full justice to the richness of the subject.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival

Cast: Philippe Tlokinski, Esther Garrel, Fabian Kociecki, Joel Basman, Mateusz Wieclawek, Sam Keeley, Sabin Tambrea

Director-screenwriter: Thor Klein

Producers: Lena Vurma, Paul Zischler, Joanna Szymanska, Nell Green

Director of photography: Tudor Vladimir Panduru

Production designer: Florian Kaposi

Costume designer: Justyna Stolarz

Editor: Matthieu Taponier

Music: Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz

102 minutes