A television adaptation of Michael Frayn's celebrated and award-winning stage play about the meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941 Copenhagen. At this time the... See full summary »

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Magrethe Bohr
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A television adaptation of Michael Frayn's celebrated and award-winning stage play about the meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941 Copenhagen. At this time the young Heisenberg was leading a faltering German research program into nuclear energy, while the middle-aged and apparently isolated Bohr was in contact with allied agents, and still held a position of great influence in the nuclear physics research community. After the meeting the two men put different interpretations or impressions of why Heisenberg requested the meeting, and what he hoped to gain from it, a theme which mirrors the ambiguity of the "Copenhagen" interpretation widely used in quantum physics. Did Heisenberg go to the avuncular Bohr to seek his blessing for his role in nuclear research? Why did Heisenberg concentrate on the development of a nuclear reactor, and not perform the calculations which would show that a bomb could be made to work via a fast-neutron reaction in Uranium 235? ... Written by Simon Shearn

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Drama | History | War

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27 September 2002 (UK)  »

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Copenhage  »

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Trivia

The original Broadway production of "Copenhagen" by Michael Frayn opened at the Royale Theater on April 11, 2000, ran for 326 performances and won the 2000 Tony Award for the Best Play. Michael Frayn's script was used as the basis of the screenplay for the movie version. See more »

Goofs

When Bohr digresses on the fission chain reaction, he indicates that one fissioned uranium atom is enough to move a speck of dust, then "until eventually after, let's say eighty generations, two hundred and eighty specks of dust have been moved, enough specks of dust to constitute an entire city." Rather than 280, the number is 2^80, as the result of eighty doublings (indicating the rather important carat exponent symbol was left out of the script or omitted by the actor). The number reads as two to the eightieth power... about a trillion trillion. See more »

Connections

Featured in Zomergasten: Episode #18.3 (2005) See more »

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User Reviews

 
Brilliant, moving, cathartic
28 January 2004 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon.)

Most viewers of this extraordinary play believe that it doesn't answer the question of why Werner Heisenberg came to Copenhagen in 1941 to visit his mentor Niels Bohr. And this is true: playwright Michael Frayn does not give a definitive answer to that intriguing question. But he does give an interpretation.

We must go to the "final draft" of their recapitulation of what happened--the "their" being the three of them, Heisenberg, Bohr and his wife Margrethe, who appear as ghosts of themselves in the now empty Bohr residence. In the climatic revisionist scene, instead of walking away from Heisenberg in the woods, Bohr contains his anger and confronts his one-time protégé. He tells Heisenberg to do the calculation to determine how much fissionable material (a "critical mass") would be necessary to sustain a chain reaction.

Heisenberg had believed without doing the calculation that the amount was somewhere near a metric ton. As he does the calculation in his head he realizes that the amount would be much, much less, only 50 kilos. This changes everything because it made the bomb entirely possible. Frayn's point is that it is far better that Bohr did not tell Heisenberg to do the calculation because if he had, it is possible that Nazi Germany would have developed an atomic bomb under Heisenberg's direction.

But this does not answer the question of why Heisenberg came to Copenhagen. Margrethe has her own answer: he came to show himself off. The little man who is now the reigning theoretical physicist in Germany had come to stand tall and to let Bohr, who was half Jewish, know that he could save him from the Nazis.

This is the "psychological" answer and it plays very well. Heisenberg, like most Germans felt humiliated by the defeat in the Great War and had suffered severely in the economic deprivations that followed. And like most Germans Heisenberg, who was not a Nazi, compromised his principles by acquiescing in Nazi rule because he believed that it would return Germany to "its rightful place" as an economic and military leader in the world. He came to Copenhagen in 1941 in triumph. His triumph, understandably, was not well received.

The more blunt question of did Heisenberg expect to find out whether the Americans were making a bomb or to get Bohr to help with the German project is also answered in a psychological way. The answer is no, because he knew that Bohr would not help him even if he could. As it turns out at the time Bohr had no knowledge of what the Allies were doing. The other question, a question that would haunt Heisenberg for the rest of his life, was did he delay the German bomb project in order to prevent the Nazis from acquiring the bomb--as he claimed--or was the fact that they were not able to develop a bomb just a matter of not having the ability? To this question playwright Frayn's answer is that Heisenberg would have developed the bomb if he had been able. This answer is the generally accepted one based on the historical evidence, part of which comes from some careless words from Heisenberg himself that were recorded by British intelligence after Heisenberg was captured and sent to England. What Frayn does so very well in his brilliant play is show us that Heisenberg's need to succeed and his need to feel national pride would not allow him to behave otherwise.

The direction of this PBS production by Howard Davies relies heavily on an interesting device. Bohr's wife becomes an objectifying factor who is able to step back from the emotional situation and to see both men clearly and to guide the audience toward an understanding of their relationship. Over the years, she and Bohr served as surrogate parents to Heisenberg. He was the little boy who came home to his parents in 1941 to say, Look at me. I am a great success. Only problem was his "success" could not be separated from the Nazi occupation of their country, and Heisenberg was too obtuse and insensitive to see that.

In truth, Heisenberg was not entirely aware of his own motivation. He did not know why he came to Copenhagen. Neither did Bohr. But Margrathe did. An accompanying point to this idea is the story of Bohr bluffing Heisenberg and others during a poker game some years before. It appeared from the fall of the cards that it was extremely unlikely that Bohr had made a straight that would win the pot, and yet he kept on betting until all the others threw in, and then when he showed his hand, he had no straight. He had fooled himself. Frayn's position is that in believing he had come to Copenhagen for innocent reasons, Heisenberg was unconsciously fooling himself. Furthermore the fact that he had not done the calculation was equivalent to Bohr's not looking back at his hole cards to see what he really had.

This is not an easy play, but the ideas are presented in a clear manner so that any reasonably intelligent person can understand them. Frayn employs an elaborate metaphor involving Heisenberg's famous uncertainty principle to elucidate the relationship between Bohr and Heisenberg. They are particles that will collide: Heisenberg the elusive electron, neither here nor there, the very essence of uncertainty, Bohr the stolid neutron. Davies has the two circling and circling one another, even chasing one another, as in a dance while Margrathe watches.

I found the play moving and ultimately cathartic as all great plays should be. Davies' direction and the sense of time and place greatly facilitated my enjoyment. And the acting by Stephen Rea (Bohr), Daniel Craig, and in particular, Francesca Annis, was outstanding.


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