When Dr. Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch arrived on the island of Floreana in 1929, it was completely uninhabited. It was a great place to build a small-scale utopia, in tune with Ritter’s Nietzschean ideals and far from the economic and political turmoil of their native Germany. Floreana was the empty New World that so many colonial visionaries pretended to have found on the American coast of the Atlantic in the 17th century. On paper it was perfect, one of the few European social experiments that didn’t displace or traumatize anyone. And yet, with tragic and brutal irony, it all ended in death anyway.
Filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller set out to tell this cautionary tale in The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden. Ritter and Strauch kept extensive journals, as did the intruders who would upset the balance of their lives. First came the Wittmers, Heinz and his pregnant wife Margret. There was an uneasy truce for a time, until the last intruder arrived: Baroness Eloise von Wagner Bosquet and her two handsome lovers. This supposed noblewoman sought to build a hotel on the island, though her exact plans are unclear.
Goldfine and Geller’s film is assembled from the media that survives. The first-person narratives of Ritter, Straugh, the Wittmers and the Baroness are read by actors, most of them Germans. Strauch, though, is voiced by Cate Blanchett with a thick, affected German accent that somehow manages to steal the show from the actual Germans. There is an authenticity here that many celebrity documentary voiceover performances lack, which is something of a relief.
Meanwhile, the star of the film is not a voiceover performance but rather the footage found and restored by Goldfine and Geller. There are home movies by Ritter and Strauch, eerie in retrospect, and a brief adventure film made by the Baroness in which she plays a villainous pirate maiden. There is something inherently unsettling about watching the moving images of the dead, especially those whose lives were lost under such mysterious circumstances. Multiple people on or around the island died or went missing after the tensions between Ritter, the Wittmers and the Baroness reached a fever pitch. It is known who is gone, of course, but not why or how. Goldfine and Geller do not pretend to have solved the mystery, wisely choosing to ask open questions rather than present frail theories.
Over all of this, strangely enough, hovers the political crisis of 1930s Germany and the violence of World War II. The doctor himself, stern rather than loving with Strauch and stubborn to a fault, is not too far off from the Nietzschean horror happening back in the Third Reich. The Baroness, meanwhile, has plenty in common with the scheming aristocrats that populate so many other films and novels about the interwar period. The Galapagos Affair can be seen as a microcosm of the grand European disaster of the 20th century.
Goldfine and Geller only grant themselves the time to hint at this, however. The story as they tell it is simply too complicated to allow for any real diversions into the thematic or theoretical. Not content to let the dead speak for themselves, the filmmakers interviewed the descendants of other families who were living in the Galapagos at the time, on the neighboring island of Santa Cruz. Their rumors and brief glimpses of truth only add a layer of gossip to this already confusing narrative. Moreover, Goldfine and Geller choose to tell the stories of these other families as well, keeping them so busy with storytelling that 120 minutes go by without much in the way of real reflection.
The story at the center of The Galapagos Affair is fascinating and historically resonant, and Goldfine and Geller tell it well. It is mysterious without becoming inscrutable, tragic but not sensational. If only the filmmakers were content with the core of this already quite complicated narrative, the film could have been truly extraordinary.