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'The Galapagos Affair' documents trouble in paradise

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

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"The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden" opens in San Francisco April 11 at the Landmark Theaters, a documentary on how two visionary Germans, Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter, left their country in 1929 to establish a home away from the confinements of modern culture. Both had left their spouses and were on the same wavelength. Inspired by the ideas of Nietzche, Friedrich had the intention of becoming a philosopher. He had read William Beebe’s "Galápagos World’s End" (1924) and was drawn to the cluster of islands in the Pacific, west of Ecuador. Darwin had studied them in 1831 and recorded his observations in "The Voyage of the Beagle" (1839).

Dora Straunch and Friederich Ritter
Dora Straunch and Friederich RitterPhoto courtesy of Zeitgeist Films, used with permission.

The couple waited a month for a ship that would take them to the island of Floreana, where for the longest time they were alone. However, eventually they were joined by social climbers who tried to duplicate the very excesses that “Adam and Eve” had escaped, as Strauch and Ritter were called by the world press on their island that they nicknamed “Friedo”. Strauch’s record of what later happened, “Satan Came to Eden”, was published in 1935.

The film begins with a statement by historian Octavio Latorre that the giant tortoises of the Galápagos islands could sense evil in people and that the foul play that later occurred on the island was predetermined.

Veteran filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine ("Ballets Russe", 2005; "Isadora Duncan, Movement from the Soul", 1988) enlisted veteran actors for the voices of the historic characters, such as Kate Blanchet as Dore Strauch, an actress that is in virtually every film, and even this obscure documentary.

The documentary consists of modern photography of the island, interviews with relatives of the first inhabitants, and footage and photographs - some shown several times for the purpose of adhering to the story. This assemblage is generally well-constructed. Altogether the question remains why should we care about these people. The beauty of this film is presenting how the unknown and the exotic attracts adventurers for different reasons. The story of a couple who leave their culture to experience simplicity and who eschew the bourgeois society of pre Nazi Germany is the interesting part of the film, but as more inhabitants are introduced including the offspring of the original travelers, it is not always easy to experience their visions. The use of dramatic voices of the historic personages are sometimes exaggerated so that the documentary loses authenticity. A documentary is just as much a fiction as a narrative film, and the way these voices are used comes across as dramatic storytelling, rather than presenting an impressive set of documents. The 'exotic' aspect of the Galapagos settlers illustrates an ambition gone wrong, and it is to Strauch's and Ritter's disappointment.

Two years after Ritter and Strauch, Margret and Heinz Wittmer arrive in Floreana to become “The Swiss Family Robinson’s of the Galapagos", inspired by their predecessor--a legacy they in part helped to create back home in Germany. The arrival of the Austrian Baroness Eloise von Watner the same year, whose vision is to build a luxury hotel, soon eclipses the work of "Adam and Eve", an adventurer who not only has two lovers but succeeds in getting a silent film with intertitles made with the help of benefactors: “The Empress of Floreana”. The film is used frequently in the doc. Eventually the baroness mysteriously disappears, leaving behind her beloved cigarettes and a copy of Oscar Wilde's "The Portrait of Dorian Gray"(1890) – two items she never left home without. A Swede who came to the island specifically to meet the Baroness (voice of Gustaf Skarsgård) breaks the story of her disappearance to the international press. Rolf Blomberg later went on to make over 30 documentaries for Swedish TV and was a tireless ethnographer.

The authentic home movie footage by the early settlers is probably the most significant aspect of the film who are clever photographers and cinematographers. The stable camera is usually placed in an excellent position and the figures and objects that are being filmed are visible without notable obstructions or clumsy editing, which is often the case with amateur filmmakers.

"The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden" was at Sundance last year and part of the official selection at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival in January.