In the summer of 1998, filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine spent some time on a documentary project in the Galápagos Islands and came across a local history book with the intriguingly titled chapter “Murder in Paradise,” which recounted dark happenings on Floreana Island in the early 1930s.
The upshot of their research into those still-unsolved crimes is “The Galápagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,” one of those stranger-than-fiction documentaries that just gets weirder and weirder as you’re watching it.
The Galápagos, totaling 20 islands, may carry idyllic, back-to-nature associations, but the reality has always been somewhat different (even to Charles Darwin, who famously stomped around there). While some of the islands have long been inhabited, others, at least in 1929, when the movie’s story begins, were not. Isolation is what 43-year-old Berlin physician Friedrich Ritter and his younger lover, Dore Strauch, were seeking when they ditched their respective spouses and set down on Floreana to live, as the film puts it, “like Adam and Eve in paradise.”
Ritter, a vegetarian who disdained the practice of medicine and was enamored of Nietzsche’s superman fantasies, was a take-charge type – useful in such a setting, at least for a while. Strauch, not the superwoman type, was less entranced by the surroundings but adapted.
When a young family – Heinz Wittmer; his pregnant wife, Margaret; and his teenage son, Harry – arrive on the island within three years to create their own Eden, they are not exactly welcomed. Worse news for Eden arrives in the person of purported Austrian Baroness Eloise von Wagner Bosquet, accompanied by two doting, strapping male companions. The baroness, who totes a copy of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” wherever she goes, wants to turn Floreana into a luxury playground for the rich.
By this time – 1934, the year of a terrible drought on the island – word has gotten out in the press about the strange goings-on at Floreana. This caldron was bound to boil over. Disappearances – almost certainly they were murders – ensue.
What makes this movie so fascinating, despite being overlong and overfilled with talking heads, is that Geller and Goldfine, in their research, uncovered an archive hidden away at the University of Southern California containing voluminous footage from the 1930s featuring all of the central Floreana players. (The trove belonged to a Los Angeles oil baron and renaissance man, Capt. G. Allan Hancock, who also produced a goofy, short pirate film, of which we see snippets, starring the cavorting baroness and one of her men.)
At first I assumed this found footage was cleverly staged reenactments, à la Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.” (Cate Blanchett is one of the actors providing voice-overs.) It seemed inconceivable to me that we could actually be watching the real deal. (And if, despite repeated assertions to the contrary from the filmmakers and publicists, it all turns out to be an elaborate hoax – well, you heard it here first.)
The message of “The Galápagos Affair” is a perennial: Paradise is not a place. Or, as someone in the film remarks, “You can’t leave civilization without being punished.” This is not a movie designed to make you want to renounce the big bad city for a diet of nuts and berries in the wilderness. It’s also a cautionary tale for people who think they are superman – Nietzschean or otherwise.
I wonder what Charles Darwin would have made of this movie. Survival of the fittest doesn’t begin to explain what happened on Floreana. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)