Movie Review: Under the Red Sea (1951)

Movie Review: Under the Red Sea (1951)

June 28, 2021

The Red Sea is a favourite destination for divers, captivated by its translucent waters brimming with a variety of lush flora. However, it does not always live up to its image as an aquatic paradise. The depths of the Red Sea are also home to terrifying underwater monsters, like the enormous shark looming from the poster, craving fresh meat and blood. Surrounded by thrill-seeking camera-toting divers, the shark spreads a red glow through the water – possibly the reason behind the film's name? – testifying to its most recent meal, whose ingredients we dare not imagine... He bears down on an intrepid aquatic pin-up, ready to do battle. Which of them will emerge victorious? 

Hans Hass set off on his yacht, Xarifa (meaning “charming young lady” in Egyptian), to make this 1951 documentary and reveal the secrets of the often fatal beauty of the underwater world Cousteau loved so passionately. A Silent World, both unsettling and peaceful, whose sounds he endeavoured to capture, beyond the audible gurgling and babbling of the sea.

The Austrian scientist exploring the coasts of Sudan was not alone on board: the nymphet on the poster is none other than his partner, Lotte, who accompanied him on each of his dives. He ended up marrying her after she escaped unscathed from an attack by a giant Manta ray. Maybe they failed to listen to the rumours spread by local fishermen, legends of megalodons (giant sharks) and giant octopuses destroying ships and their crews, of islands inhabited by evil genies.  

The couple became inseparable, filming and exposing the acoustic landscape of the seabed with a “hydrophone”. They also tested the effects of certain sounds on fish behaviour. Spotted eagle rays, triggerfish, clownfish and spotted garden eels (named Heteroconger Hassi in honour of the scientist!) all remained deaf to the sounds of firecrackers and other nasty loud bangs. Maybe because we underestimate their sensitivity to music. As soon as the first notes of the Blue Danube floated into the water, they began to dance elegantly around the camera! I would love to see their reaction to Céline Dion's voice escaping from the Titanic...

The documentary won an award at the Venice Film Festival and has entered the canon of scientific cinema. Hass is remembered as a brilliant biologist and filmmaker. He was a pioneer of diving, popularizing it and inspiring people to see it as a vocation.  Don't be too quick to buy into the poster's image, the underwater world is above all a place of serenity and of symbiosis with a nature still untouched and preserved, at least partially.