Distributor:  Icarus Films
Length:  60 minutes
Date:  2004
Genre:  Expository
Language:  English
Grade level: 9-12, College, Adult
Color/BW:  Color
Closed captioning available
Interactive transcript available
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This title is included in the following collections: The Icarus Films Collection, The Arts, Music and Language Collection


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Animated exploration of the 19th century's fascination with the undersea world, and portrait of biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel, who found in the sea depths an ecstatic fusion of science and art.


'The ocean is a wilderness reaching 'round the globe, wilder than a Bengal jungle, and fuller of monsters, washing the very wharves of our cities and the gardens of our sea-side residences.'- Henry David Thoreau, 1864

For the nineteenth century, the world beneath the sea played much the same role that 'outer space' played for the twentieth. The ocean depths were at once the ultimate scientific frontier and what Coleridge called 'the reservoir of the soul': the place of the unconscious, of imagination and the fantastic. PROTEUS uses the undersea world as the locus for a meditation on the troubled intersection of scientific and artistic vision. The one-hour film is based almost entirely on the images of nineteenth century painters, graphic artists, photographers and scientific illustrators, photographed from rare materials in European and American collections and brought to life through innovative animation.

The central figure of the film is biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). As a young man, Haeckel found himself torn between seeming irreconcilables: science and art, materialism and religion, rationality and passion, outer and inner worlds. Through his discoveries beneath the sea, Haeckel would eventually reconcile these dualities, bringing science and art together in a unitary, almost mystical vision. His work would profoundly influence not only biology but also movements, thinkers and authors as disparate as Art Nouveau and Surrealism, Sigmund Freud and D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Lenin and Thomas Edison.

The key to Haeckel's vision was a tiny undersea organism called the radiolarian. Haeckel discovered, described, classified and painted four thousand species of these one-celled creatures. They are among the earliest forms of life. In their intricate geometric skeletons, Haeckel saw all the future possibilities of organic and created form. PROTEUS explores their metamorphoses and celebrates their stunning beauty and seemingly infinite variety in animation sequences based on Haeckel's graphic work.

Around Haeckel's story, PROTEUS weaves a tapestry of poetry and myth, biology and oceanography, scientific history and spiritual biography. The legend of Faust and the alchemical journey of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner are part of the story, together with the laying of the transatlantic telegraphic cable and the epic oceanographic voyage of HMS Challenger. All these threads lead us back to Haeckel and the radiolaria. Ultimately the film is a parable of both the difficulty and the possibility of unitary vision.

'A Truly Stunning Film! I highly recommend [it] for a general audience, students, and scientists alike... A highly effective way to educate and entertain large audiences about science and its history.'-Science Magazine

'Thrilling! Brain food that goes down like brain candy.'-San Francisco Bay Guardian

'A visually stunning fusion of art, cinema and science that provides insight into the life of an important historical and scientific icon, and showcases the immense beauty of his minute marine subjects.'-David Caron, President of the Society of Protozoologists and Chair, Dept of Biological Sciences, Univ of Southern California

'Unique and stimulating!'-Science Books and Films

'Mesmerizing!'-Animation World

'Powerful! A remarkable movie that continually urges the mind to reach beyond what is examined on the screen... Wonderfully edited and animated, the final product is... indescribable!'-Leonardo: Journal of the International Society of Arts, Sciences and Technology

'Highly Recommended! Captivating! An exceptional resource in a variety of subject areas including biology, history, theology, and philosophy. It does a wonderful job of showing the intersection of these disciplines and how they reflect the visions of their time.'-Educational Media Reviews Online

'A stimulating scientific inquiry... A constant visual treat!'-Variety

'Wonderfully interesting...an informative overview of Haeckel's intellectual growth.'-Roy R. Behrens, Ballast Quarterly Review

'The time is more than ripe for a reevaluation of Haeckel's work, and filmmaker David Lebrun has a refreshing new angle... the images are beautiful and thought-provoking and the film is well worth watching for its visual, verbal, and musical artistry.'-Sander Gliboff, H-German listserv


** 2006 John E. O'Connor Film Award, American Historical Association
** 2005 Society for Visual Anthropology Film Festival
** Outstanding Creative Achievement Award, 2004 Santa Barbara Film Festival
** Best Documentary, 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival
** Best Documentary, 2004 Santa Cruz Film Festival
** 2004 Woods Hole Film Festival (Marine Biological Laboratory)
** 2004 Savannah Ocean Film Festival
** 2004 Sundance Film Festival


Main credits

Lebrun, David (screenwriter)
Lebrun, David (film director)
Seldes, Marian (narrator)

Other credits

Animation camera, Chuck Martin, Kevin Haug, Richard Edwards; editor, David Lebrun; music, Yuval Ron.

Distributor credits

A Film by David Lebrun

Docuseek2 subjects

History of Science
Marine Biology
Philosophy, Critical Thinking and Ethics
Art History

Distributor subjects

Animated Films
Cinema Studies
Environmental Film Festivals
History of Science
Life Sciences
On 35mm
Science and Technology


radiolarian; Ernst Haeckel; film; video; documentary; dvd; nineteenth century; 19th century; ocean; sea; undersea; scientific frontier; Coleridge; unconscious; imagination; art; materialism; religion; rationality; passion; Henry David Thoreau; biology; Art Nouveau; Surrealism; Sigmund Freud; D.H. Lawrence Vladimir Lenin; Thomas Edison; oceanography; Ancient Mariner; David Lebrun; "Proteus"; Icarus Films;

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