A government official and his wife visit Werner’s orphanage. To prepare, all the orphans are washed and carefully dressed to impress their visitors. Frau Elena prepares delicious food, and combs everyone’s hair. Werner finds it hard to be excited for the official’s visit—he’s too engrossed in his copy of The Principle of Mechanics by the great scientist Heinrich Hertz. Werner is fascinated by electricity, Hertz’s area of expertise.
We can see in this scene that Werner’s love for science is somewhat dangerous to the Nazi mindset—because Werner worships science above all else, he’s reluctant to accept the arbitrary authority of a government official. The Nazis want to twist science to their own use, and as long as it remains objective, it will work against their oversimplified, hateful ideas.
During the government official’s visit, Werner can’t help but continue reading his book. Suddenly, the official sees that Werner isn’t paying attention. He takes Werner’s book from him, inspects it, and describes it as a “Jew book.” Werner protests that Hertz was born in Hamburg, but the official doesn’t listen. Jutta pipes up that her brother is a brilliant student, and one day he’ll become a great scientist in Berlin or Munich. The official smirks and tells Jutta that Werner will end up in the mines, just like everyone else in the orphanage.
The challenge of Werner’s life is clear to him: he must master science, or face a life spent in the mines. Werner thinks that he can control his own destiny through hard work and intelligence—a worthwhile idea, but often not the way the world works. It’s important to understand what the official means by “Jew book.” It was often claimed in Nazi Germany that the Jews practiced a dangerous, radical form of science (“Jewish Physics”) designed to upset the natural order of the universe. Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity was always the go-to example of “Jewish science” for the Nazis.