Film Review: The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

Fascinating documentary about the human history of the Galapagos Islands which is, as is so often the case, more dramatic than any kind of cooked-up tropical fiction.

The Galapagos Islands, with their promise of a paradise of flora and fauna in an utterly natural state, seem to be on everybody's bucket list, including mine, but after seeing this film, the allure has somewhat waned. Maybe it's a case of not quite literally knowing where all the bodies are buried, but the fact alone that there are indeed mysterious corpses to ponder there amidst all that sylvan splendor, along with the undeniable surging hordes of tourists, is off-putting.

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden endeavors to tell the human story of the place, starting with the pioneer German settlers, physician Friedrich Ritter and his lover, Dore Strauch, who left Berlin in 1929 to pursue a simpler, solitary life, inspired by a Nietzschean credo, away from mankind, the trap of materialism and the Nazi onslaught. A domineering alpha, Ritter reveled in isolation on the island of Floreana, while Dore chafed at the loneliness, causing friction between them. Soon enough, they were joined by other countrymen, also seeking an escape from Hitler and a new life, but if you think this was one happy settlement of like-minded Teutons, think again.

Ritter was particularly resentful of any intruders, and the most obstreperous of the bunch was one Baroness Eloise von Wagner, who arrived a few years later with the intention of opening up a splendid Hotel Paradiso for tourist profit. A flamboyant type who rubbed people the wrong way, she dubbed herself "Empress of the Island," and held court whenever she could, accompanied by two men, whom Friedrich and Dore deemed her gigolos. So obnoxious was she that, as one of the many interviewees puts it here, she was the type many would have liked to have killed. Indeed, she did disappear mysteriously with one of her guys, and when Ritter himself died not too long after, supposedly (according to Dore) from bad chicken meat, Floreana acquired the reputation, propounded by international tabloid media coverage, of a dark place of murderous secrets.

Filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller have done an admirable job of memory assemblage, using copious interviews with various descendants of the original settlers. At such a remove from any kind of general population, it was inevitable that various members of the families would marry and produce offspring. A basic fascination of the somewhat overlong film is hearing the varying accounts of these now quite senior men and women about what it was like to grow up in tropical innocence—with all those lovely turtles, iguanas and birds—and then have to deal with more conventional concerns of adult appropriate behavior in social situations, romantic relationships and the like. Most of what they have to say is of interest, and it's a particular blessing that a trove of 16mm home movies was discovered at the University of Southern California, which, along with the abundant photographs these hardy if eccentric island dwellers took of themselves, nicely illustrate the narration, consisting largely of journal entries by Dore and other settlers. A number of eminences, including Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Josh Radnor and Thomas Kretschmann, lend their voices to the diary readings, bringing class and an effective histrionic note to an already teemingly dramatic story.

It was some kind of noble experiment, all right, that went astray due to decidedly non-utopian greed, envy and egomania. Also, whatever spiritual gratification and exploration some of them might have thought would be possible in the Galapagos was quickly thwarted by the mere necessity of incessant manual labor for survival. Surprisingly—or perhaps not—the descendants have decided to remain there, despite its drawbacks, and look and sound pretty hale and hearty withal. And when Dore's journal entry about adoring the company of her pet burro yet finding that is not quite enough is read, your mind flashes to a similar statement mouthed by one of those crazy cat women from Grey Gardens, and you almost want to laugh at the unintentional humor expressed by such loneliness. There's also a definite laugh or two stemming from a stupendously narcissistic, low-camp silent movie the Baroness produced, with herself as a horse-faced pirate queen on a deserted isle, lording over various enslaved men played by Ritter and others.

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