Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision

  • 2004
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Documentary

"Every age has its own vision of the world," opines the narrator of this exquisite documentary. "And every image reflects the vision of its time and its maker." Like many of his era, the great 19th century biologist, evolutionary theorist and artist Ernst Haeckel envisioned existence as a duality between the external, natural world of matter and the inner,...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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"Every age has its own vision of the world," opines the narrator of this exquisite documentary. "And every image reflects the vision of its time and its maker." Like many of his era, the great 19th century biologist, evolutionary theorist and artist Ernst Haeckel envisioned existence as a duality between the external, natural world of matter and the inner, unseen realm of the spirit, but unlike the typical Victorian scientist, he shared the Romantic poets' belief that this split could only be united by an act of creative imagination. The image the Prussian-born Haeckel found to reconcile that opposition was the mystifying radiolarian, the tiny marine organism he first encountered in shallow waters off the coast of Sicily. A microscopic, single-celled organism, the radiolarian extrudes the silica it draws from seawater to forms a dazzling web of crystalline, concentric shells; even more amazing, each of the 5000 known species of radiolarian forms its own unique pattern. Gazing upon this fascinating natural phenomenon under his microscope, Haeckel was sure he'd found an embodiment of the unity between the inner and outer realms that he'd been seeking for so long, and began diligently, painstakingly drawing each radiolarian form as he discovered them. David Lebrun's wonderful documentary brings Haeckel's artistic and scientific triumph to life through a beautifully written narration (voiced by Marian Seldes), which parallels Haeckel's spiritual journey with that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, and through a brilliantly curated series of 18th- and 19th-century prints, paintings and engravings. The experience is like strolling through a cabinet of wonders, one that makes extraordinary connections between seemingly disparate developments, like the invention of the telegraph and the exploration of the ocean floor — a final geographic frontier for the mid-19th-century scientist that still served as a repository of dreams and nightmares for the poet. The centerpiece of the film, however, is Lebrun's magnificent, rapid-fire montage of Haeckel's radiolarian drawings set to composer Yuval Ron's fuguelike score. Flashing by like images in a flip book, these protean forms appear to dance a cosmic quadrille set to the music of the spheres.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: "Every age has its own vision of the world," opines the narrator of this exquisite documentary. "And every image reflects the vision of its time and its maker." Like many of his era, the great 19th century biologist, evolutionary theorist and artist Ernst… (more)

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