Alan Turing was autistic

Fact check: “The Imitation Game - A Top Secret Life”

For yesterday's free TV premiere of “The Imitation Game - A Top Secret Life”, the German Spy Museum is taking another close look at the film. In October 2016, we honored Marian Rejewski's Polish code breakers in our blog. Unfortunately, these do not appear in the Alan Turing biopic and remain hidden from the general public.

Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore primarily focus on Turing as a person. The talented mathematician's historical life achievement - decoding the Enigma cipher machine - is one of several narrative threads. We will not anticipate some dramaturgical highlights in this article. In the following we will dissect other aspects and examine them for their truthfulness.

Alan Turing - an attached autistic?

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing as a shy and reserved mathematical genius with no sense of social behavior. The interview with Alastair Dennington, head of GCHQ's forerunner Government Code and Cypher School, reminds some viewers not unjustly of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.

This is exactly where a first criticism of the film comes in. The stereotypical portrayal of the mathematical genius as an attached autistic person is completely wrong in the eyes of some critics. Quite a few biographers portray Turing as a shy scientist, but not in such an extreme as portrayed in the film.

The cinematic exaggeration may come from stories that have been circulating about Turing. For example, Turing was seen sitting on a bicycle with a gas mask over his head in the summer. That looks strange, but seems to have been the mathematician's efficient solution to a massive hay fever.

The Bletchley Park code breaker center

The film explicitly focuses on Turing and his work. This doesn't really reveal the true number of employees at Bletchley Park. The film sometimes gives the impression that the few people around Alan Turing entrusted with the Enigma project were the only employees in Bletchley Park.
Instead, an army of people was busy breaking through many different encryption systems.

In the so-called "Hut 8", Turing and colleagues were busy with the code of the Marine Enigma. In other "hats" one worked on the Enigma of the army and air force, on the Lorenz key machine or analyzed the messages that the colleagues had cracked. One of Bletchley Park's probably last code breakers died just a few months ago: Rolf Noskwith.

Alan Turing and the Soviet spy

The greatest criticism from historians and even the biographer, on whose work the script for “The Imitation Game” is based, is the connection between John Cairncross and Alan Turing. Cairncross worked as a code breaker in Bletchley Park during World War II. He revealed secrets to which he had access to the Soviet Union. Presumably he was the long-unknown member of the so-called "Cambridge Five" who, like him, spied for the Soviet Union.

The film now creates an extremely improbable and unprovable direct connection between the spy Cairncross and the code breaker Turing. The film is rightly criticized for this episode - because it puts the real hero Turing in the wrong light.

Turing discovers the illegal activity of his colleague Cairncross and confronts him with the facts. Cairncross, in turn, uses his knowledge of Turing's homosexuality to blackmail him. Turing then withheld his knowledge of the Soviet spy for the time being. In doing so, he is theoretically guilty of high treason. An extreme accusation that lacks any historical basis.

Against the background that the film actually addresses Turing's life's work and the injustice suffered due to his homosexuality, this episode seems absolutely out of place. The film then tries to limit the damage again. It is alleged that the identity of Cairncross was even known to MI6 chief Stewart Menzies. The spy was used to supply the Soviet Union with false information.

The problematic connection between Turing and Cairncross is much more likely to stick in the minds of the audience than the subsequent correction. Against this serious fallacy, the use of Tipp-Ex shown in the film, which only came onto the market in the 1950s, seems almost insignificant.


Despite the weak points shown, the film gives a good impression of the general developments and events that led to the decryption of the Enigma. Certainly recommended as an introduction to the subject. But as is so often the case with large cinema productions, one should be aware that reality always falls victim to the dramaturgy.

An event in the German Spy Museum will explicitly deal with the link between fiction and reality in films. On August 11th, Bond experts explain how closely the famous super villains from the 007 films are linked to reality.