Visions of Eden collide in real-life mystery thriller ‘The Galapagos Affair’
It’s a fantasy as old as time. From Utopia to Walden, from the Swiss Family Robinson to the hippie communes of the ‘70s, who hasn’t entertained the idea—at least for a moment—of leaving the vice and folly of the material world behind and carving out a new life in some wild, unspoiled place? This yearning to go back to nature and start over is at the heart of The Galapagos Affair, a fascinating real-life mystery (it might almost be classified as true-crime, except evidence of an actual crime has never quite been proven) about strife and skullduggery in a so-called tropical paradise of the 1930s.
Directed by Bay Area filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, this stranger-than-fiction documentary is aptly subtitled Satan Came To Eden, the title of a memoir written by one of the principals involved after the fact. Not to carry the analogy too far, but, as Sartre said, hell is other people. The story told in The Galapagos Affair isn’t about a looming villain invading an idyllic realm; instead, it’s about a handful of cranky loners and the accumulation of little frictions between them that leads to trouble in Paradise.
No mystery writer could invent a more promising scenario for mayhem, or a more eccentric cast of characters. In 1929, 43-year-old German medical doctor and self-described philosopher Freiderich Ritter, and his bedazzled patient-turned-mistress, Dore Strauch, leave their respective spouses for the island of Floreana in the Galapagos chain off the coast of Ecuador. A misanthrope traumatized by the Great War and disgusted with society, Ritter craves “total solitude” in which to write and think on the island inhabited only by giant tortoises and seagulls. But there’s an inner dictator inside Ritter, who ignores Dore’s emotional needs and demands that she use discipline and will power to” think” her way through the multiple sclerosis with which she’s been diagnosed.
Ritter’s dispatches from Floreana, carried back by a U.S. science ship that occasionally plies local waters, find their way into German newspapers. (“Nudists, cavemen, eccentric philosophers,” the headlines scream.) In 1932, the Wittmer family arrives to hack out their own settlement on the island. Ritter and Dore consider them bourgeois and lacking in “spiritual goals,” and Ritter resents that the pregnant Margret Wittmer expects him to assist when she gives birth.
But real upheaval arrives with a charismatic woman calling herself Baroness von Wagner (but more likely a former showgirl from Munich). With two men in tow, swarthy, rugged Phillipson, and blond, handsome Lorenz—she calls them her “architect” and her “engineer,” although they are known to be a menage a trois—she has an enormous sense of entitlement, and a horrifying plan to open up a resort on the island, the Hacienda Paradiso, for passing yachts.
Tensions mount between these diverse settlements, with covert intimations of love as destructive as the obvious hatred they harbor for each other. The tragedy everyone expects occurs in the drought year of 1934 with a disappearance and subsequent fatalities. It’s like Murder on the Orient Express: everybody on the island certainly had a motive to want certain members of the community out of the picture, not to mention the means and the opportunity. Indeed, as the unlikely tale is spread about that their neighbors have unexpectedly departed on a passing yacht that nobody else ever saw, everyone’s immediate response is relief.
Fortunately for us, most of these principals kept detailed diaries, read on the soundtrack by a voice cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Thomas Kretschmann, Connie Nielsen and Sebastian Koch. (It’s often very telling to hear how different observers describe the same events.) Copious home movie footage of all the islanders—including an attempted pirate movie featuring the baroness and Phillipson shot by one of the American sailors—keeps the action percolating along onscreen. Only occasionally does the film lose its focus, due to a gigantic supporting cast of ex-pats and their descendants on nearby Santa Cruz Island. Their stories sometimes distract from the central tale, although they contribute to the overall sense of otherworldliness in this exotic thriller of a doc.
Bay Area filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine will be at the opening night, 7 p.m. screening of The Galapagos Affair for an after-film Q&A. At the Nickelodeon, Friday only, May 9.
THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR: SATAN CAME TO EDEN
★★★ (out of four) A documentary by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine. A Zeitgeist Films release. Not rated. 120 minutes.