(PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA) If it were a work of Hollywood fiction, the pitch line for the movie might be: “It’s The Blue Lagoon meets Macbeth.” Instead, The Galápagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a film that just played to two sold-out screenings at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, is a documentary. In a mostly fascinating though sometimes meandering fashion, it tells the story of settlers who found their dreams of paradise dashed on the volcanic rocks of Floreana Island.
In 1929, Berlin physician Friedrich Ritter and his lover Dore Strauch ditch their respective spouses and head to Floreana in search of solitude in an enchanted corner of the world. It’s a time when migrating to the Galápagos Islands is unfettered by Ecuadorian government regulations and pioneers can stake out their own piece of turf. The plans quickly go awry as Ritter and Strauch find themselves laboring constantly to survive in a place with scant food and water.
And their visions of solitude vanish with the arrival of the Wittmer family from Germany, who think of themselves as “The Swiss Family Robinson” of Galápagos. Then when a woman, Eloise von Wagner Bosquet, who bills herself as an Austrian baroness, arrives with her two boy toys, the place really goes to hell.
The assorted settlers get along like the Hatfields and McCoys and eventually, the baroness and one of her guys disappear amid rumors of a murder. Later, her remaining lover flees Floreana, only to wash up dead on another island.
Then, there’s Dr. Ritter, who, despite being a vegetarian, dies after eating what may have been tainted chicken meat. Or was he poisoned? (Suspicion hovers like a Galápagos waved albatross riding the air currents!)
The story of the doomed Galápagos settlers has been told and re-told in their own accounts and by various authors over the years. (Dore Strauch, who returned to Germany and Mrs. Wittmer, who stayed on Floreana, both wrote books with differing versions of events.) And the “whodunit” question has never been answered. So, how do you make this into a documentary movie?
Directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, who first became fascinated with the story while in Galápagos in 1998 working on a film about Charles Darwin, discovered a trove of archival footage of the settlers.
The old footage, donated to the University of Southern California, was shot by the crew of Los Angeles oilman Allan Hancock, who mounted several Galápagos expeditions in the 1930s and filmed the Floreana families. To their great credit, Geller and Goldfine rescued and restored the images that were rapidly deteriorating inside old film cans. They also retouched hundreds of still pictures from the Hancock expeditions.
Because all the principals in the tale are dead now, the filmmakers’ challenge was finding a way to bring the characters to life. To that end, they employed actors such as Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Thomas Kretschmann and Josh Radnor to provide voiceovers, speaking the words the settlers wrote in their own accounts of life and death on Floreana.
To flesh out the story and explain what drives certain people to seek a life away from civilization, the filmmakers have inserted plenty of contemporary talking heads; descendants of the Floreana settlers, elderly Galápagueños who remember hearing about the events on Floreana and members of other Galápagos pioneer immigrant families. Here, the film wanders off the main story for too long, even after the filmmakers cut nine minutes out of the movie to give it a two-hour running time.
But the film has more than its share of redeeming moments, including a movie-within-a-movie. Amazingly, the baroness persuaded the Hancock crew to film her in a silent short that she dreamed up to show off her acting “talents.” The whole thing is unintentionally hilarious as she plays a lady pirate who seduces and kills with great gusto. One of the Hancock crew members, in drag, plays a honeymooning bride. It’s a hoot.
Director Dayna Goldfine told the audience at the Palm Springs screening of The Galápagos Affair: “The baroness always dreamed of being a Hollywood movie star.”
Now, thanks to Goldfine and Geller, she’s getting her wish, eight decades after her death while a fascinating bit of Galápagos history is preserved for film fans. The movie will be screened in February at the Berlin International Film Festival and will be in theaters in April. Some months ago, the filmmakers put on several screenings in the Galápagos and said the film was received with great enthusiasm by the locals.