Decoding Nazi Germany’s Enigma Code: Review of “The Imitation Game”

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

Decoding Nazi Germany’s encrypting machine, Enigma, was no easy task. Invented by the German engineer Arthur Scherbius at the end of WWI, Enigma machines were used by the Nazis during WWII to exchange (encode and decipher) secret messages pertaining to national security and strategy of war. Three Polish cryptologists who worked for Polish military intelligence—Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski—were the first to begin deciphering Enigma messages, using theoretical mathematics and information given by French military intelligence.


During the war, the Allies captured an actual Enigma machine, enabling them to study its hardware and make further progress in figuring out how it worked.  Two compatible Enigma machines would have to work together, the first one encoding a secret message, the second decoding it. An operator would type in a message in German. The Enigma machine would automatically convert each letter into a different letter of the alphabet, through a process of random substitution. The encrypted text would be sent to another operator whose deciphering machine was similar and compatible with the first operator’s machine: only in this case the second Enigma machine would convert the random letters into plain German.


A new movie, The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, focuses on the life of British mathematician and cryptologist Alan Turing, who is credited for helping decode the Nazi Enigma machines. Loosely based on Andrew Hodges biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma (Princeton University Press, 2014), this movie succeeds as a character study as well as a very interesting historical thriller. Turing faces barriers not only from the Navy Commander Denniston, but also from his colleagues, who initially resent the fact he’s entirely focused on building a machine at the expense of their collective work. Portrayed as slightly autistic, without friends lacking a sense of humor, Turing ends up being a fascinating character nonetheless. In fact, his flaws make him seem all the more unique. He goes against the grain to invent the machine capable of solving the puzzles that hundreds of brilliant minds working in the field cannot. Turing’s more sensitive side evolves in his friendship with his colleague Joan Clark (marvelously played by Keira Knightly), whom he asks to marry him in the spring of 1941. Although she accepts despite the fact Turing confesses to her his homosexuality, soon thereafter he changes his mind and breaks up with her in a dramatic scene.


Turing’s homosexuality becomes as central to the plot of the movie as his creation of the machine that breaks the Enigma codes. A few years after the war, in 1952, Turing, by then 39 years old, has a sexual and romantic relationship with a homeless young man named Arnold Murray. When one of Murray’s acquaintances burglarizes his house, Turing calls the police. During the investigation, the detectives called to the scene discover that Turing is homosexual, a criminal offense in Britain at the time. He’s charged with “gross indecency” and given the choice of going to prison or two years of probation (which includes taking hormonal treatment to reduce his libido). On June 8, 1954, the man who helped save millions of lives and shorten the war by at least two years tragically commits suicide by ingesting cyanide. The movie implies that the hormonal treatment, criminal charges and social isolation have a lot to do with Alan Turing’s untimely death, while the Hodges biography indicates this could have been an accidental death.


To transform a messy, complex human life into a drama, a film has to change many aspects of that life. In a recent review of The Imitation Game for Slate, L. V. Anderson goes over some of the ways in which the film deviates from Turing’s life as described by Hodges’s biography:


The (real) Alan Turing depicted by Hodges in Alan Turing: The Enigma, though eccentric, was a much more likable and social person than the character in the film. He was well liked by his fellow cryptologists working at Bletchley Park, who describe him as “a very easily approachable man” and claimed to be “very very fond of him”. In the film, Alan’s more of a loner who is taught to value human emotion by Joan Clark, his friend and confidante. The movie also exaggerates Alan Turing’s role in single-handedly deciphering the Enigma machine, downplaying the roles of others and of the Polish precedents. The movie romanticizes Alan’s early crush for a fellow student at Sherborn School, a boy named Christopher Morcom with whom he shares a love of cryptology (in real life, L. V. Anderson states, they shared a love of chemistry and math). In the movie this love is described as reciprocal, while in the biography it appears to be a more ambiguous relationship, probably just friendship on Christopher’s part.


All these changes, in my estimation, add rather than take away from the strength of the film. They render Alan Turing’s scientific contributions seem all the more significant and heroic while the tragic irony of his death becomes all the more acute. After all, the man who helped save the world from the Nazi regime—a regime that killed homosexuals for being gay—is forced by the British government to choose between prison and a debilitating hormone treatment, in a “free” democratic country to which he had devoted his mind and his life.


Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Alan Turing, Alan Turing: The Enigma, Claudia Moscovici, history, Holocaust Memory, Nazi Germany, The Imitation Game, WWII

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