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The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, and then to the movies

Heinz and Margret Wittmer, with Henry and baby Rolf, on Floreana
Heinz and Margret Wittmer, with Henry and baby Rolf, on Floreana
USC Special Collections/Zeitgeist Films

Here’s a film you should try not to miss, a strange and fascinating documentary set in the Galapagos. Who knew that some of these islands, about 600 nautical miles west of Ecuador, were inhabited? Not only that, one of them was the scene of events far too farfetched to be compared with fiction—it would be way too much for one novel. And the mysterious disappearances at the heart of this tale have never been explained.

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden starts with Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch, a Nietzsche-enamored Berlin physician and his patient and lover, who come to tiny, undeveloped Floreana—60 miles from Santa Cruz, the nearest (and lightly inhabited) island—in 1929. They have the place to themselves until Heinz and Margret Wittmer and their 14-year-old son set up housekeeping in some caves across the island. All goes well enough until the arrival of the “Baroness” Eloise von Wagner Bosquet and her two consorts, in 1931. She’s read the reports from a research ship funded and captained by G. Allan Hancock, a wealthy oilman from Los Angeles, and has arrived with plans to build a grand hotel.

The seductive Baroness, just as entitled as her phony title would suggest and twice as abrasive, gets an Ecuador government official to grant her a parcel of land that includes the spring the Wittmers use. Ritter, of course, is livid at the thought of anyone else on Floreana. Since she plays her two lovers against one another, it’s safe to say von Wagner has made more enemies than friends on the island. When a terrible drought hits, tensions rise and….

Bay Area-based filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller had known of this story and the supposed “murder in paradise,” but were able to create their documentary only once they learned of an unexplored archive of material Hancock had donated to USC. It held not only letters, journals, books (Strauch and Margret Wittmer both published works about their time on Floreana), manuscripts, photographs, and negatives, but fragile celluloid film of all the protagonists—including a little 16mm movie Hancock had made starring von Wagner (playing a “piratess”) and one of her lovers, Robert Philippson.

I tell you, if this were fiction, it would never work. For one thing, the Baroness and Philippson supposedly left the island on a yacht bound for Tahiti and were never seen again. How could you wrap up a murder mystery with the words “and no one knows what happened”?

Once Goldfine and Geller returned to the Galapagos, they met many locals, including a man who grew up where Ritter and Strauch had lived, two Wittmer children born and raised on Floreana, and others who either immigrated to or were born on Santa Cruz. Some may feel these modern-day interviews (in color) take away from the historical narrative (with all that archival imagery, in black-and-white, of course. These filmmakers don’t use recreations, I’m happy to say, and the words of the historical figures are voiced by actors such as Cate Blanchett and Thomas Kretschmann.) I think the interviews provide context, giving some notion, for instance, of what Ritter and the others were thinking as they tried to escape civilization. Several of these people have lived on Floreana or Santa Cruz all their lives, which is interesting in itself.

So for me, the entire film is gripping and a little amazing. The filmmakers must have been so delighted, working on it—you don’t find stories like this every day! Geller and Goldfine have been creating multicharacter, award-winning nonfiction narratives for more than 25 years. I really liked their doc on the Ballet Russes, which made several 10 Best Films of the Year lists in 2005.

Somehow, I missed their most recent documentary, from 2011—Something Ventured: Risk, Reword, and the Original Venture Capitalists (meaning early investors in companies like Apple and Genentech)—even though it was shown on public television. But in the fascination sweepstakes, how could any VC or entrepreneur, even Steve Jobs himself, compete with Ritter, Strauch, the Baroness, Captain Hancock, or even someone who grew up with giant iguanas and crabs as playmates?

The movie opens in San Francisco and Berkeley on April 11 and nationwide later this month.