AMPHIBIAN MAN: Romantic Science Fiction of Soviet Production

“Amphibian Man” is the first blockbuster of the post-Stalin era – a fantasy, adventure, and romance set in a subtropical marine climate.

Mariusz Czernic

21 June 2024

In the adaptation of Aleksandr Belyaev’s 1928 novel, American studios, led by Walt Disney, had shown interest, but ultimately nothing came of it due to insurmountable technical difficulties. Specifically, the challenge lay in the complex underwater sequences. Therefore, it is remarkable and admirable that this problem was solved in a country without significant experience in producing spectacular genre films. While Russian cinema had produced some science fiction masterpieces, such as Yakov Protazanov’s “Aelita” (1924), the production of “Amphibian Man” seemed beyond reach for filmmakers. Russian creators were ridiculed for even attempting such a project, but the laughter gave way to admiration when the film hit the screens and achieved spectacular success.

The Devil with a Golden Heart

The story told in the film has multiple sources – besides Belyaev’s work, there is Jean de La Hire’s novel “The Man Who Could Live in Water” (1909) and an anonymous publication titled “The Amphibian Man” (1909), which added an antisemitic undertone to the fantastic plot (it was published in the Petersburg newspaper “Zemshchina,” which propagated monarchist and antisemitic content). The works of Jules Verne and Herbert George Wells also undoubtedly influenced this story. The film, ultimately directed by Gennady Kazansky and Vladimir Chebotaryov, is deeply humanistic, exploring the search for humanity within oneself, while also serving as a biting social commentary on human greed.Somewhere in the southern waters sails a schooner named Medusa, owned by the wealthy oligarch Don Pedro Zurita (Mikhail Kozakov). He oversees a team of pearl divers – during their search for valuable minerals on the bay floor, one of the divers encounters the legendary “sea devil,” causing panic and halting their work. Soon after, a girl named Guttiere Baltazar (Anastasiya Vertinskaya) dives into the water and is attacked by a shark. Pedro, who loves her, rushes to her rescue, but it is the “sea devil” who saves her – killing the shark and bringing the unconscious Guttiere to the surface before quickly disappearing into the depths, leaving the head diver astonished. From that moment, Pedro Zurita becomes obsessed with capturing the “amphibian man” to use him for his own ends.

amphibian man

The legendary creature turns out to be the son of a scientist, Ichthyander (Vladimir Korenev), swimming in a scaly suit and able to breathe underwater. His father, Dr. Salvator (Nikolai Simonov), had implanted him with shark gills to save him from a lung disease. The successful experiment inspired a mad plan in Salvator’s mind to create an underwater republic of such beings. He envisioned a utopian world where money had no significance, thus eliminating the divide between rich and poor. However, he overlooked one thing – the inherent human yearning for something lost. In search of lost humanity, Ichthyander follows the woman he saved from the shark attack, facing the greedy and cruel pearl diver, unaware that his rival is the “sea devil.”

“Amphibian Man”: Simple Plot vs. Technical Sophistication

The main plot is very simple, based on the timeless theme of tragic love between two young people from different backgrounds, exploited since Shakespeare’s time. However, the film also features a range of contrasts – the silence of the deep sea versus the bustle of city streets, tamable science versus the inscrutable human nature, and Ichthyander’s angelic innocence clashing with ruthless greed and blatant exploitation of workers. After freeing itself from Stalinist constraints, Soviet cinema gained freshness and imagination, as exemplified by “Amphibian Man,” a unique gem in the history of the Soviet Union. Although the film did not gain much popularity in the West, it was featured in the first edition of the International Science Fiction Film Festival in Trieste in 1963, where it won the second prize, the Silver Spaceship (tied with Roger Corman’s “X – The Man with the X-ray Eyes”).

amphibian man

The underwater scenes are naturally the most impressive, largely due to the work of director Vladimir Chebotaryov and cinematographer Eduard Rozovsky, inspired by Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Oscar-winning documentary “The Silent World” (1956). The spectacular effect on screen resulted not only from passion and experience but also from a willingness to learn new things under the guidance of instructors. The team included qualified swimmers, divers, and athletes, such as Rem Stukalov, the first USSR champion in underwater sports, Galina Shurepova, known for training combat dolphins for the Soviet Navy, and Anatoly Ivanov, who wore the underwater suit of the main character and the shark costume. The underwater shots were not filmed through glass – the filmmakers actually went underwater with cameras and lights, requiring not only courage but also significant creativity in planning.

Eyes as Mirrors of the Soul

The dedication of the actors is also noteworthy – one of the film’s opening scenes, where Anastasiya Vertinskaya as Guttiere sinks unconscious to the bottom of the bay for Ichthyander to rescue her, looks dangerous and difficult to execute. The film features many high-quality stunt scenes, both underwater and on land (e.g., the main character’s jump between buildings). When casting the main roles, special attention was paid to the actors’ eyes, which were supposed to reflect the sea (Ichthyander) and the sky (Guttiere) – it sounds poetic and enigmatic, but when looking at Nastya and Volodya, it’s clear they perfectly fit this description. Additionally, the actors were filmed with special lighting using blue and green filters to emphasize their eye colors. Mikhail Kozakov, the main antagonist, is convincing in his role, primarily due to his eye performance, which has something demonic.

Interestingly, co-director Gennady Kazansky, credited in the titles, did not contribute much to this film – he joined the crew after the entire shooting plan was prepared, and even much of the material had already been shot. Chebotaryov had fallen out of favor with Lenfilm’s management due to his affair with model Ada Dukhovina, so Kazansky was sent to the set to oversee the director and potentially replace him. However, lacking underwater filming training, he limited himself to directing a few simple studio scenes.

amphibian man

“Amphibian Man”: Cinema Covered in Mother-of-Pearl

The set design is impressive, both in terms of the realistic look of the exotic city (based on photographs of Buenos Aires) and the visionary futuristic interiors (especially the multi-story residence of the “mad scientist”). The outdoor locations also worked perfectly without requiring long flights: Laspi Bay on the Crimean Peninsula, Kastropol settlement on the Black Sea coast with Iphigenia’s Rock, or the Old Town in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

There were some kitschy, cheap tricks inspired by American B-movies like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954, dir. Jack Arnold). However, they have their charm, and in this film, with such a wild plot, they hold up well over the years. The film is also remarkable from a musical perspective – Andrey Petrov composed a series of diverse pieces that match the film’s character. There is a magical “mermaid theme” in the underwater scenes, nostalgic sea songs (Hey, Sailor! with a female jazz-like vocal and Song of the Fisherman sung by a male voice), and an unforgettable dance sequence with Cuban rhythms featuring professional dancers and the nearly 17-year-old Nastya Vertinskaya, who proved to be a true star of this film. The actress stood out with her grace and naturalness, and at the time of the film’s production, she was already known from another fairy tale film – “Scarlet Sails” (1961, dir. Aleksandr Ptushko). In subsequent years, she played Ophelia in Grigori Kozintsev’s “Hamlet” (1964) and Princess Liza Bolkonskaya in Sergei Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” (1965–1967).

amphibian man

“Amphibian Man” is poetic, romantic, and touching cinema that deserves appreciation for moving away from political ideas in favor of unbridled imagination and humanism. The film resurfaced in memory thanks to the success of “The Shape of Water” (2017), Guillermo del Toro’s four-time Oscar-winning production, which also draws from Soviet fairy tales. Although the profession of a pearl diver is not very noble in the film, as it involves stealing treasures from the seas and oceans, it’s worth becoming a diver for film pearls for such unique gems as this one from Soviet cinematography.

Mariusz Czernic

Mariusz Czernic

Tries to popularize old, forgotten cinema. A lover of black crime stories, westerns, historical and samurai dramas, gothic horror movies as well as Italian and French genre cinema.

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