The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden Review

Posted: March 22, 2014 in 2014 Berlinale, Documentary, Reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

ImageIf hell is other people, then paradise is the place without neighbors – or so it seemed to Dr. Friedrich Ritter and his patient and lover, Dore Strauch, who together abandoned Berlin, Germany, and their respective spouses in 1929 and settled on the uninhabited island of Floreana in the Galapagos Islands. While not desirous of neighbors, the pair had no such problem with courting publicity and became known in the international press as “the Adam and Eve of the Galapagos.” That attracted the attention of another German family – the Wittmers – who fancied themselves as a potential Swiss Family Robinson of the Galapagos and moved to the island in 1931. Later that year, a woman claiming to be an Austrian Baroness also made her way to Floreana in the company of her two German lovers with plans to build a lavish resort hotel. Not long after, Paradise Lost turned into Lord of the Flies.

Within a matter of months, three people were dead and another two were missing. What happened on the island of Floreana, who did what to whom, and, of course, the more titillating who did what with whom, are questions that remain a mystery to this day. Death, disappearance, jealousy, hedonism, ambition, accusation – it all adds up to more than ample source material for a movie.

That was what struck the husband and wife filmmaking team of Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller when they traveled to the islands in 1998 and first learned of the tale. The pair told an audience after a screening of their documentary, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, at the 64th Berlinale Film Festival in February, that they were captivated by the story immediately, but felt that there was not enough available for a visual representation of the events. That changed a few years later when the two learned that “home movies” made by visitors to Floreana during the period in question were available in the archives at the University of Southern California.

The project has clearly been a labor of love for Goldfine and Geller and that may be the source of the film’s primary problem: too many of their darlings have made their way onto the screen rather than being killed in the cutting room. The run time of two hours is simply too long. In addition to telling the main story, the documentary also shows extensive interviews with current inhabitants of the Galapagos. The first appearance on screen of the original protagonists’ descendants is striking, but these contemporary interviews deal more with growing up on the islands and differing views of living in relative isolation than with the lurid events of more than 80 years ago. The digressions stop narrative momentum and sap needed tension.

The decision to use well-known actors and actresses as voice talent in the readings of letters, journals, and other writings of the protagonists is also questionable. Listening to Cate Blanchett (Dore Strauch), Diane Kruger (Margret Wittmer), and Connie Nielsen (Baroness Eloise von Wagner) employ German accents and a sense of theatricality does not draw the viewer in, nor does it make the historical figures more real. The readings seem artificial and inappropriate for this type of documentary. It is as if the filmmakers did not have enough confidence in their material, but felt the need to tie it to Hollywood talent in order for the film to be seen. That is a shame, because it is the story that is rightfully the star here. And even with the shortcomings of this movie, the events are so riveting that this is a documentary worth watching.

Three stars.

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