The 19th century saw a dialectic between science and religion that caught practicioners on both sides of the aisle in its wake. The 19th century also saw the rise of the ardent solo naturalist, with Darwin casting such a wide shadow that few others are remembered today. Both of these strands are woven together in Proteus, a largely fascinating piece on now forgotten biologist Ernst Haeckel, who personally found himself caught between his Christian beliefs and his scientific inquiries, but who managed to presage many of Darwin's theories, coining the term "ecology" along the way, and whose lifelong obsession with the one-celled undersea creatures known as radiolaria forms the visual focus of this piece.
The symmetrical spherical wonderment of radiolaria became a micro-metaphor for Haeckel's growing assertions that the universe was a self-guided organism working toward its highest good (of which, of course, European man was the then current apex of creation). Haeckel's shallow water discoveries of these fascinating structures was only heightened years later when the HMS Challenger found literally thousands of the creatures at depths heretofore unimagined and Haeckel was hired to catalog them. His stunning representations of them are still in use today, and in fact Haeckel once considered giving up a scientific career to pursue art, something this documentary shows would have been quite easy for him based on his lovely landscapes which are featured in abundance.
Proteus does an engaging job of weaving together some pretty disparate strands, as Haeckel himself did in an almost mystical fashion by finally coming to the conclusion that religion and science were basically two sides of the same coin. Intercutting lots of etchings by such renowned artists as Dore with some brilliant longer montages of incredible varieties of radiolaria (set to an appealing 7/4 passacaglia by composer Yuval Ron), Proteus helps make visceral the wonder that Haeckel must have felt as he became entranced by these fascinating microorganisms.
With Marian Seldes' soothing narration leading the way and excellent voicework by such pros as Richard Dysart, filmmaker David Lebrun explores some unexpected niches, as when he concludes rather convincingly that Haeckel's influence spreads to such unlikely media and movements as D.H. Lawrence's nature fiction to the Art Nouveau movement. Proteus is never less than visually arresting, with so many fascinating tidbits dropped along the way that it never seems to be a standard biography at all. Haeckel certainly deserves to be better remembered than he is, and Proteus will hopefully help right that wrong as more people are exposed to him via this new DVD release.