‘Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision’


Thoroughly in love with 19th-century etchings of every baroque variety, this hour-long documentary is otherwise primed for PBS, complete with overacted narrational voices (Marian Seldes, Richard Dysart) and a middlebrow summary of scientific history. The tale told belongs to Ernst Haeckel—forgotten but pioneering marine biologist, evolutionist, author, and draftsman—whose dawning awareness of oceanographic fecundity spawned more than one scientific discipline (including ecology), presaged Darwin, and for filmmaker David Lebrun, played out the age’s combatant philosophies of scientific Enlightenment and Romanticism. Considerations of Goethe and Coleridge punctuate straight history and diary readings; Lebrun has such a rave with Haeckel’s meticulous renderings of one-celled, sea-dwelling radiolarians—he documented 4,000 varieties, with every form of delicate microscopic architecture you could imagine—that
Proteus often lapses into a dizzy doodle, rapidly repeating similar forms to create an animated abstraction. Lebrun’s thesis about Haeckel recombining factual wonder and spiritual grandeur—seeing the structure of the soul in minuscule biology—is broad and pleasantly idealistic, and the evident ardor for 150-year-old graphics (especially Dore’s
Ancient Mariner
masterstrokes) is hard to argue with. But is it a movie or the best-designed episode of

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