Proteus: a nineteenth century vision

Earlier this week I went to see Proteus: a nineteenth century vision, David Lebrun’s richly imagined film about the life and work of German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel. The film takes as its centrepiece animations created from Haeckel’s intricate drawings of a class of mono-cellular organisms – the radiolaria.

Drawings of radiolaria from Haeckels ‘Kunstformen der Natur’ (1904)

Over his lifetime Haeckel identified and described some 4000 radiolaria, and in this film we are treated to rapid fire animated sequences that draw together hundreds of his drawings of these tiny organisms. You can see a sample in this YouTube clip. The abstract imagery with a throbbing soundtrack from Yuval Ron, which is at times reminiscent of Philip Glass, strongly reminded me of Koyaanisqatsi in its abstraction of a greater whole. The viewer is bombarded by image upon image giving the sense of the sheer scale of what’s available out there.

Aside from the four central animation sequences the film consists of still images that have an endless and mesmerising ebb and flow as the camera constantly pans across them. The images are almost all archival and are accompanied by a voice over that tells Haeckel’s story, from his youth through to the end of his life. The voice over is punctuated by interludes where actors read from archive sources such as Haeckel’s correspondence. The narrative we’re presented with describes how Haeckel had a crisis of confidence in his twenties when he went travelling. His initial intention was to study marine life, but while abroad he had his first encounters with artists and poets. The picture we’re shown is of a young man, torn between his responsibilities to continue scientific studies on the one hand, and pursuing a life as a romantic artist on the other. He was a talented landscape painter, and his drawings of specimens are extremely beautiful. It was in the midst of this strife that Haeckel discovered new species radiolaria and found he could reconcile his two interests.

One of Dore’s woodcut illustrations from the Rime of the Ancience Mariner – these woodcuts are used extensively in Proteus

In amongst Haeckel’s biographical story excerpts from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner are woven – with comparisons drawn between Haeckel and the Mariner telling his story. The mysteries of the sea are a an important parallel for the mysteries of the natural world, and a third narrative is drawn out to heighten this sense. In 1872 HMS Challenger set sail with the tools of a new science, oceanography. Challenger was tasked with carrying out surveys of the ocean floor, partly for the practical reasons of laying telegraph cables, but also in the spirit of so many of the exploratory missions of the nineteenth century. Challenger’s crew brought back a vast array of specimens and samples from their expedition, and these were sent to numerous experts to investigate. Haeckel, who had already published a monograph on radiolaria by this time, was sent a large number of samples for study. So it was that by plumbing the depths of the ocean Haeckel was able to build on his work and identify and draw thousands more radiolaria.

As somebody who didn’t have a great knowledge of Haeckel’s work before seeing this film, I thoroughly enjoyed the tale I was told. It was clear from the Q&A afterwards that some specialists in the history of biology could find several points of fault with the historical accuracy. The interwoven narratives of Haeckel’s life, the Ancient Mariner and the HMS Challenger voyage were the areas of greatest contention, as they blurred some timelines giving misleading emphasis to certain events. I enjoyed the variety of stories and enjoyed the way they quite deftly gave a broader context to Haeckel’s life and work. Working storytelling into history is contentious in itself as it requires a dramatic arc which could muddy the facts. On the other hand stories are written in such a way as to be memorable, that’s almost the point. So for conveying information to non-expert audiences they are an important tool to be used with care. What was nice about this example is that it unashamedly declared itself as a story or vision, and was quite self-aware. One of the early lines the narrator speaks can be applied to this film as much as to the images contained within it.

Every age has its own image of the world, and every image reflects the vision of its time and of its maker.

To understand the maker of this vision it is helpful to understand that Haeckel was little known to English speaking scholars when the film was made. In some respects the film is trying to redress that. Some of the more outlandish claims made in the film, when seen in that light, are much more understandable – and perhaps can be more easily forgiven as a result.

For me this film was enough to pique my interest to learn more, and has left me with a (very) basic understand of Haeckel’s scientific work, artistic interests and even his personality. On top of that it was a thoroughly engaging piece of work that kept me captivated, despite being described by a fellow audience member as little more than a glorified slide show. While this is true, the specially commissioned music and carefully selected narration together with the constant sea-like movement of the images that were reminiscent of a modern day magic lantern show really brought Haeckel’s story to life.

Proteus was screened as part of a series of films shown by the Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge.

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