[8 April 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Win a cruise in the Galapagos Islands!” The offer on Zeitgeist’s official website for The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden is something of a puzzle. On its face, the ad is what you might expect of a campaign for a movie about an exotic place, a place like the Galapagos, and even a movie about tourists who go to that exotic place.
But Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s documentary isn’t just about a place or about tourists. It’s about a particular mystery concerning tourists, a mystery that remains unsolved and not a little disturbing. It is also, more generally, about what makes tourism inherently disturbing.
The mystery, known as the “Galapagos affair”, was set in motion in 1929, when the German doctor Friedrich Ritter and his lover Dore Strauch decided they’d had enough of their respective spouses and lives in Berlin, and headed to the Galapagos. Determined to forge their own new and idealized lives together, eschewing islands already inhabited, they landed on Floreana. And when they did, as Strauch puts it (her voice acted by Cate Blanchett), they felt sure they had come “to make an Eden on these shores.”
As soon as you hear this, “Dore Strauch’s words” read over a series of images—a lovely old-timey map, a recent shot of glittering water off the coast of Floreana, grainy archival footage of Dore and Friedrich smiling on a boat—you’re ready for a next shoe to drop, and indeed, less than a minute into The Galapagos Affair, it does. The film offers up headlines and creepy music on the soundtrack to indicate that something goes wrong in this paradise, namely, sexual intrigues, tragedies, and maybe, murders.
If these events are propelled by the arrival on Floreana of other tourists over the next few years—including Margret Wittmer (voiced by Diane Kruger) and her husband Heinz (Sebastian Koch), the Baroness Eloise von Wagner (Connie Nielsen), and her lovers Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorenz—all sorts of tensions are articulated by the “original” couple, as Strauch and Ritter (Thomas Kretschmann). Inspired by Nietzsche, Ritter tends early on to dominate his partner, and she alternately submits and resists, not convinced of the value of his withholding and demanding, worrying about her health (she has MS, which makes the labor of making a home on the island even more onerous than it might have been), and turning to her increasingly beloved burro as a companion.
That all of these stories are illustrated by photos and home movie footage results from the proclivity of the inhabitants of Floreana to document themselves, in images and journals. The film draws from multiple sources, including books by survivors and historians, as well as newspaper and magazine stories based on rumors at the time, whether or not these were started by participants. The juxtaposition of the island inhabitants’ own stories and these assorted other documents suggests a certain gap between what you might consider evidence and storytelling (as each image or journal entry is a performance of some sort, perhaps self-expressive, perhaps self-deceptive, perhaps elaborate lies).
As these intersecting but not always harmonious versions of the past are accompanied as well by testimonies by other speakers—children born on the island, historians, other tourists—the film complicates not just the saga of these tourists, but opens up much broader questions concerning what we might think to be truths and stories. One interviewee, Claudio Cruz, who grew up on Floreana Island on the old Ritter-Strauch property, offers this observation from a combination distance and closeness to the mystery, “So we are left, like the tourists, with only the books and the stories. And the story continues.”
As he does a couple of times during his interview for The Galapagos Affair, Cruz here laughs, oddly, an effect that suggests both the completely bizarre nature of the tales. The historical context seems almost to ebb and flow with the sensational reports of who was sleeping with whom, who was telling what to whom, and who was jealous of whom, even as all individuals vie for who has control of the stories, who lives to tell and whose disappearance or death might make a version seem that much more poignant or compelling.
As Fritz Hieber, Friedrich Ritter’s grandnephew, suggests, the impulse to escape drives the events and also the story as it now hovers. While Ritter, Hieber says, subscribed to Nietzsche’s distaste for “human beings”, he should have “known also what Goethe said, that you can’t leave civilization without being punished. You will be punished. If you go alone on an island, there can happen terrible things and though I think the Galapagos tragedy was programized like a movie from the beginning to the tragic end.”
He and others in the film assert this cause and effect narrative, which doesn’t so much make sense as it imposes a moral structure on chaos. It’s possible, of course, that no such order can be imposed. And that’s a story of paradise—of tourism, of presumption—that might be told again and again.