In ‘The Galapagos Affair’, Paradise Remains Stubbornly Absent

In this gripping true-crime story, an absurdist stew of petty tensions and quasi-Nietzschean dynamics rip apart the tiny colony of Europeans who settled one of the Galapagos islands in the '30s.

There are many tales that deserve being called “one of the oldest stories in the book”: older men who fall for younger women, the ambitious idealist who attains power only to betray everything they once stood for, and so on. One of the most ancient of these ever-repeated stories is given a gripping recounting in perhaps the year’s best stranger-than-fiction documentary. In The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, we are reminded again not only that some kinds of people perpetually and incorrectly think they have discovered paradise, only to end up ruining it with the same kind of behavior they were themselves fleeing.

In 1929, a certain kind of European man apparently thought nothing of packing up and moving himself and his family to a remote cluster of islands far off the coast of Ecuador. According to this film, this decision was occasionally based on only the thinnest rumor or news story. The first couple to arrive on the tiny and uninhabited island of Floreana was Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch. From his and Dore’s writings, it’s clear that Friedrich was a walking stereotype of the clueless Germanic intellectual, so slavishly devoted to his beloved Nietzsche that reality didn’t stand a chance. A successful doctor who believed society to be “a huge impersonal monster,” Friedrich moved them to Floreana in order to “make an Eden.” That they were both married at the time to other people and didn’t know much of anything about surviving in the wild wasn’t deemed an obstacle.

Dore Straub and Friedrich Ritter

Of course, Eden doesn’t welcome a crowd. So when other people start showing up on Floreana, which Friedrich had decided was theirs, conflict was inevitable. As one of the original settlers’ descendants points out in one of the modern-day interviews, the kinds of people who tend to escape human society to live in a remote area don’t tend to be joiners. Friedrich was an imperious and arrogant rage-prone would-be philosopher who was irritated not only by Dore’s painful multiple sclerosis but railed in general against “frail and cowardly women.” When the more sociable Heinz and Margret Wittmer appeared on the island in 1932, they aren’t precisely welcomed.

The Galapagos Affair takes a detour into schadenfreude with the appearance on the island of the Baroness Von Wagner and her two strapping male lovers. Even with the inevitability of violent conflict in the offing, it’s difficult not to be somewhat pleased by the appearance of the Baroness, who at the very least equaled Friedrich in grandiose planning and overly inflated confidence. Friedrich just wanted to live off the grid in an early twentieth century manner. But the Baroness believed that she could build a luxurious resort on the island and then, Siren-like, entice the wealthy to stay there.

She wasn’t wrong to think that people would be riveted by this tiny colony of expatriates willingly hacking out a rough life on a tiny, dry, and isolated island that had little to offer but beautiful views and numerous iguanas. Before she had even arrived, Friedrich and Dore had become strange celebrities back in Europe after details from personal letters leaked out and were blown up into salacious tabloid news stories. But while the Baroness’s estimation of her own desirousness proved wildly overblown when it came to the outside world, in the island’s tiny and fractious community, she quickly stirred up a hornet’s nest of jealousy. Then, just like any true tabloid story, after the infidelity and power games, came murder.

Directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine (Ballets Russes) have a wealth of material to work with here. Not only did many of the adults who played a role in this story keep a journal of some kind, but the outside world’s occasionally keen interest in the island’s inhabitants left behind plenty of still photographs and silent film footage. It’s skillfully stitched together here in a moody narrative heavily weighted by all-too-foreseen tragedy. Geller and Goldfine further trick out the historical documentary format by having each of the journals read by actors; Cate Blanchett’s tired and frustrated take on Dore’s writing contrasts vividly with Connie Nielsen’s high-pitched rendering of the Baroness’ fevered, manic fantasizing.

Understandably, The Galapagos Affair focuses more on the melodramatic interplay of the Floreana settlers than the surrounding issues. Just about nothing is said about the restrictions of bourgeois European life between the wars or the sense of entitlement that led them to the islands in the first place. Asides on what it was like to grow up on the islands and gender roles (many male settlers were of the dreamy variety, leaving the ruder practicalities of remote island living to their women) are mostly consigned to the 14 deleted scenes included on the DVD. This lack of context keeps the film from being able to honestly pursue the big question here—why did everybody think this would be so easy? But the story is riveting nonetheless, in the manner of all stories about what happens to dreamers obsessed with autonomy when paradise doesn’t live up to reality.

RATING 8 / 10