Saturday 25 November 2017

Obituary: Lotte Hass, underwater photographer

Underwater photographer whose trailblazing films delighted 1950s audiences

Lotte and Hans Hass
Lotte and Hans Hass

Lotte Hass, who has died aged 86, was an underwater photographer and model who, with her husband Hans, produced pioneering films of the sea depths during the 1950s.

Shot on early watertight cameras, the Hasses' footage offered viewers a glimpse of an underwater world unparalleled in its intimacy - at considerable personal risk to Lotte, who dived using a lightweight rebreather and a fashionable swimsuit that afforded her little protection from aquatic predators. The bulky filming equipment posed a separate danger, and on one occasion she almost drowned when her oxygen supply ran out and the heavy lens required for colour shots dragged her down.

In the male-dominated divers' community, Lotte was a striking exception, and her good looks, combined with a fearless approach to sharks, manta rays and other perils, contributed in large part to the audience appeal. Diving To Adventure, the couple's 1956 BBC series, was the first of its kind for British television, proving a great hit with critics and viewers alike.

The Daily Mail dubbed Lotte "one of the most beautiful women who has ever prowled under the sea with a spear"; her picture adorned the covers of international magazines, and she received offers from Hollywood. She rejected the prospect of a long-term acting career, however, preferring to remain with Hass on his expeditions, and later retired from the public eye - though not before securing her place in diving history, as the first woman to explore the coral reefs of the Red Sea.

Born Charlotte Hildegard Baierl on November 6, 1928 in the Brigittenau district of Vienna, Lotte was 19 years old when she applied for a position as Hans Hass's secretary. Hans, nine years her senior, had just released his first feature-length film, Men Among Sharks, and was planning a new expedition to the Red Sea. As a great admirer of his books, Lotte was eager to attend, but faced considerable opposition from Hass and his fellow team members, who felt that having a woman on board would distract them from the seriousness of their task.

Hass's film company, however, recognised the value of an attractive lead, and Lotte was ready to prove herself a valuable addition to the crew. Unbeknown to Hass, Lotte had been taking lessons under an Olympic trainer, borrowing Hass's camera for an excursion into the Danube while he was away on a lecture tour. The resulting pictures - of carp, pike and catfish - were published in an Austrian magazine in 1949. Under pressure from his director, Hass yielded, telling Lotte: "From tomorrow on you are a man."

For Lotte, the expedition presented a steep learning curve. Hass could be heedless in his determination to achieve the best possible shots. On her second dive Lotte found herself separated from the rest of the crew and eye-to-eye with a shark; a few days later Hass drove a school of barracuda towards her. Eventually she plucked up the courage to approach him: "Do you think there are any giant octopuses?"

"I wish there were!" Hass replied. "Unfortunately, the only ones I've ever seen came from American film studios and they're made of rubber."

Newly divorced from his first wife, Hans proposed to Lotte in Cairo at the end of the expedition. Their finished film, Under the Red Sea, won an award at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, and critics were much impressed by the novelty of a female diver. "The figure of Miss Baierl, floating smoothly along the crags of coral in the underwater world", wrote The New York Times, "makes an equally fascinating and dramatic contrast to the life that is there."

The couple's new-found commercial success allowed Hass to purchase a 170-foot yacht, the Xarifa, and Lotte accompanied him on expeditions to the Caribbean and Galapagos Islands, where they shot Under the Caribbean (1953). The first German film produced in Technicolor, it won an award from the Underwater Photographic Society for outstanding cinematography.

Later the couple dived off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and trawled the Aegean to shoot Diving to Adventure, producing 26 half-hour films. The Undersea World of Adventure, a six-part series shot in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, followed in 1958.

From the end of the decade, Lotte devoted most of her time to her young daughter and the family's flat in Vienna. She made a brief return to the screen as an actress in 1976, with a supporting role in an episode of the long-running German detective series Derrick.

Her autobiography, Girl on the Ocean Floor, was published in 1970. Lotte Hass was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame and the Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in 2000. Hans Hass predeceased her in 2013, and Lotte, who died on January 14, is survived by their daughter Meta.

Sunday Independent

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