In the unconventional biopic TESLA Richard Linklater’s favorite actor Ethan Hawke takes on the role of the inventor and scientist of the same name. The approach that director Michael Almereyda finds for his film is pleasing in terms of playfulness and melancholy. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: Tesla (USA 2020)
Young engineer Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) is a promising employee at Thomas Edison’s (Kyle MacLachlan) Electric Light Company. But a rift soon emerges between the two very opposite men, which will make them lifelong rivals. The brilliant but socially awkward immigrant Tesla turns to the industrial tycoon George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), who from then on finances Tesla’s work on his groundbreaking electricity system. At the same time, the brilliant inventor is already working impatiently on a new, ambitious project financed by banker JP Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). Tesla meets Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson) and is faced with the decision whether to continue devoting himself to his work or to love.
Within just a few weeks, two films about Thomas Edison will be released in this country by the same distributor Leonine (formerly Universum). Or George Westinghouse. Or Nikola Tesla. At least about the big players in the early electricity industry. In “Edison – A Life Full of Light” the focus was primarily on the electricity war between Edison and Westinghouse. Tesla only appeared on the sidelines. After numerous production difficulties, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s film was a moderate disaster, in which none of the three personalities mentioned – not even the titular one (!) – was adequately portrayed. But who knows how many of the subsequent changes made after the failed world premiere in 2017 made the film worse. In any case, the former potential Oscar contender will quickly disappear into obscurity. However, for at least one of the three victims, this cinema year has something like an apology in store. And of all people who received the least attention in “Edison”: Nikola Tesla. The inventor of the moving coil motor is still nowhere near as famous as the inventor of the light bulb (although a popular car brand is now named after him), but if you go solely by the films, he was definitely the more exciting person, Michael Almereyda (“Anarchy”) has now dedicated an extremely creative film that offers much more than the usual standard repertoire for biopics.
Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) attracts the interest of Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson).
Tesla’s former lover Anne Morgan frames the film portrait about “her” Tesla as a narrator who repeatedly addresses the audience directly. In order to better classify some events in Nikola Tesla’s life, she also uses current technical possibilities. For example, to make it clear via Google that the term “Thomas Alva Edison” brings up around 64 million entries, while “Nikola Tesla” only has half as many. But Morgan is not responsible for putting her husband in the victim position of the unrecognized genius; on the contrary. Surprisingly, there can be no question of a subjective coloring, although that would not be at all unusual given this relationship between the narrator and the person being told about (we remember: in the case of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” this idea was rather wrong) . But since the two never became more than a short but intense liaison, she is not particularly keen to protect Tesla. But she manages to take a look at the private and scientific personality, which in “Tesla” culminates in something that seems almost otherworldly in the director and author hands of Michael Almereyda. For example, the film ends with the statement that we may now live in the world that Tesla once dreamed of. Tesla’s balancing act between dreamer and visionary is the focus here.
“At the center of “Tesla” is Nikola Tesla’s balancing act between dreamer and visionary.”
The dreamy, playful quality can also be found in the production. Not just because Anne, who uses today’s technologies, makes it clear from the start that Almereyda is not just going through the stages of Nikola Tesla’s Wikipedia entry (like Alfonso Gomez-Rejon did in “Edison”), but he picked out exactly which events were particularly formative for Tesla. And these were not just moments of scientific knowledge (Tesla registered more than 280 patents during his lifetime!), but above all moments of a private and emotional nature. Almereyda uses simple means to illustrate the fact that Nikola Tesla suffered from obsessive-compulsive neuroses and therefore did not really feel like he belonged to the world. He sends his main character through the world on roller skates, enveloping his images (camera: Sean Price Williams, “Good Time”) with a kind of milky veil, she suddenly has Tears for Fears’ “Everybody wants to rule the World” singing – all moments in which you don’t know whether Tesla is dreaming, whether Almereyda is using these scenes as a modern equivalent of past events or whether they take place in reality from Tesla’s perception. The director and author resolve some scenes. Some not. Tesla remains an inconsistent figure, which is why it is so difficult to decide between “He has a brilliant idea!” and “He’s chasing dreams again!” to distinguish. “Tesla” can certainly be blamed for this openness (some might call it indecision) on both sides. At the same time, she takes away the heroism of the character portrayed and instead portrays him as a man with weaknesses. So just as a human being. Something that is always good for a biopic.
Meticulous at work: Nikola Tesla
Ethan Hawke takes on the lead role of Nikola Tesla. Director Richard Linklater’s favorite mime doesn’t seem very present at first glance. His Tesla doesn’t say much, his facial expressions are limited to the necessary moves. It is not uncommon for those around him to overlook him and interrupt him. But Hawk’s eyes reveal Tesla’s observation of every movement around him. At the latest when he meets Anne Morgan, he breaks out a little bit from his self-imposed isolation, which he otherwise only leaves when he is forced to have business conversations. Hawke manages to never let this minimalist game tip into lethargy. Tesla is the epitome of still water. And little by little you realize exactly how deep this water is. Although the supporting characters around him have far less screen time, they often automatically appear more present. “Twin Peaks” star Kyle McLachlan as the extroverted Thomas Edison (incidentally a 180 degree turn compared to Benedict Cumbertatch’s extremely inhumane performance) really rumbles here compared to Tesla. The same goes for Jim Gaffigan (“The Alibi”) as George Westinghouse. At the same time, you can also see their different relationships to each other, but especially to the history of electricity. “Tesla” is nowhere near as sober and accurate as “Edison” in terms of narrative, but at the end of the day it leaves the viewer with the impression that it reveals much more about all three characters.
“Nikola Tesla is the epitome of still water. And little by little you realize exactly how deep this water is.”
You have to like a staging over-stylization like in “Tesla”. Only recently, Marjane Satrapi’s biopic about Marie Curie came under criticism because it also took various stylistic liberties in order to present the world-famous physicist’s life not just as a retelling of a human life, but also to link her findings at the time with their effects on today . In the case of “Tesla” it is similar, sometimes even more abstract. When the narrator repeatedly inserts slideshow-like lectures in order to pay particular attention to certain details of life; That’s almost reminiscent of Lars von Trier. First and foremost, however, this makes Michael Almereyda want to focus more on the character Nikola Tesla. And as a filmmaker you have to do that first.
Conclusion: Nikola Tesla as a balance between visionary and dreamer – With “Tesla” Michael Almereyda creates a film about the scientist that can be offended by its striking style, but which definitely makes you want to deal with the Tesla persona.
“Tesla” can be seen in USA cinemas from August 20th.