Today, thinking of the Galapagos Islands brings to mind images of giant tortoises, iguanas and colorful birds – National Geographic-type visuals. But how about a 1930’s murder mystery in the vein of “Lord of the Flies” mixed with Hitchcock-like characters? That connection is doubtful.
In the fascinating documentary, “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,” documentarians Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller (“Ballet Russes”) give you such surreptitious elements. With a wealth of archived footage, journals and news articles and writings, Goldfine and Geller explore activities that occurred during 1929 - 1934 on Floreana, a remote island of The Galapagos.
A fan of Nietzsche and with hopes of writing his own great philosophical treatise, Friedrich Ritter a 43-year-old, prominent doctor left his wife and his Berlin practice to find the next “paradise.” Along with his lover Dore Strauch, 28, they headed to The Galapagos Islands’ uninhabited Floreana, setting up a homestead in 1929. Little did they know how the next five years would unravel, and paradise found would be paradise lost.
Rejecting civilization and craving solitude, Friedrich and Dore were shocked to learn that some of their letters home were published in the Berlin and International press, who labeled them as “The Adam and Eve of the Galapagos.” This unwelcome fame caused curious citizens to flock to find Friedrich and Dore. Such unwelcome visitors included oil magnate and scientist Allan Hancock and his crew, including young scientist, John Garth; and “intruders” Heinz and Margret Wittmer, who had read Friedrich’s writings and hoped they too could become a real-life “Swiss Family Robinson.” Friedrich and Dore were beyond upset.
But stranger still is the arrival of Austrian Baroness Eloise von Wagner Bosquet and her two younger lovers, Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorenz who showed up in October 1932. Margret wrote that the Baroness rode up on a burro wielding a revolver. This overbearing Baroness had dreams of building a luxury hotel to woo wealthy yachtsman. A most unwelcome thought.
Undeniably, these three parties couldn’t be more disparate in life’s goals. Could they possibly survive one another? Well, within two years, two inhabitants would go missing, another would turn up dead, and another would die under potentially mysterious circumstances. Maybe Satan really had come to Eden.
With archived film and photos, mostly shot by Hancock’s scientific crew, the filmmakers, Goldfine and Geller are able to weave this incredible mystery of what happened on Floreana. Integrating their footage with the writings from Dore, Friedrich, Margret, Heinz, Baroness von Wagner, scientist Garth, and later reporter Rolf Blomberg (voiced respectively by Cate Blanchett, Thomas Kretschmann, Diane Kruger, Sebastian Koch, Connie Nielsen, Josh Radnor and Gustaf Skarsgard), the documentary offers theories, but no real answers. Just as well, since it’s exciting to revel in personal theories after viewing.
Equally interesting is the present day interviews of the Galapagos inhabitants on Floreana and Santa Cruz islands, who offer up stories they heard and theories they have about the events on Floreana. Two inhabitants interviewed are descendants of Heinz and Margret Wittmer, son Rolf and daughter Floreanita, who were both born on Floreana in 1933 and 1937, respectively. Friedrich’s grandnephew, Fritz Hieber also relates stories from Friedrich’s family background.
“The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden” is a captivating tale of trying to escape from civilization, yet never really succeeding. With such rich characters within this unique mystery, one wonders if a big screen fictional treatment might be in this story’s future.