Home > Film, History, Reviews > Film Review: The Galapagos Affair – Satan Came to Eden

Film Review: The Galapagos Affair – Satan Came to Eden

The Galapagos Affair – Satan Came to Eden (2013; Directed by Dayna Goldfine & Dan Geller)

The remote Pacific archipelago of the Galapagos is one of the few corners of the planet with no history of permanent human habitation prior to the modern era. Though archaeological evidence suggests that the Galapagos were visited by South American peoples before an off-course Spanish navigator happened upon them in 1535, the islands were only settled at last in the 20th Century. A century after their eternal fame was assured by a young Charles Darwin’s visit on board the Beagle to make some important observations concerning its native finches, the Galapagos Islands played host to a much more sinister and mysterious episode of intrigue.

This episode, involving three sets of German colonists and an enigmatic, unsolved disappearance/murder in the 1930s, is the subject of The Galapagos Affair – Satan Came to Eden. The film’s unwieldy title gestures towards lurid true crime material, but the subtitle in particular has more Miltonian philosophical intentions in mind. A sort of modern case-study reboot of the original Fall of Man, Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s involving documentary is a whodunit without a solution, indeed without the need for one because the guilty party is always already fallen, sinful, imperfect people. It’s a parable of perilous human geography in isolation, of the surface percolation of distrust and resentment of interpersonal coexistence in near-laboratory conditions.

Here’s the scenario, such as it is: in 1929, Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter abandon their marriages and late Weimar Germany altogether to run away together to Floreana, an uninhabited island in the Galapagos. Ritter is a physician with a self-righteous Nietzschean bent who wishes to live the untouched existence of the idealized Übermensch in the tropics. Strauch, in the thrall of Ritter’s intellect but of an overall more practical disposition, willingly goes along, although she soon finds their burro to be better company than her moody would-be philosopher lover. They scrape out a hard life for themselves in complete isolation for some time, their only outside human contact derived from an occasional visiting scientific expedition or pleasure yacht.

Their solitude was disrupted twice, and for good. First, a bourgeois Westphalian family called the Wittmers establish a homestead nearby, overcoming initial chilliness and Dr Ritter’s doctrinaire beliefs to become friendly neighbours, a self-styled Swiss Family Robinson to Ritter and Strauch’s Pacific Adam and Eve. But the relative harmony is shattered by a more intrusive and flamboyant resident, the also self-styled Baroness Eloise von Wagner and her two male Germanic acolytes. The Baroness (who is almost certainly nothing of the sort) treats Floreana with the arrogance of a sexualized conquistador, annexing edges of Ritter and Strauch’s “property” (nobody on the island seems to have anything beyond squatter’s rights to anything) and intending to develop a luxury hotel for wealthy travellers that will turn the remote Galapagos into a new vacation hot spot. Her demonstrative personality and hot-and-cold moods throw the fragile social balance on Floreana off kilter, and she is central to the dark and deadly drama that shatters this putative Eden.

Drawn extensively from the journals and memoirs of Strauch, Ritter, the Wittmers, and visiting scientist John Garth, The Galapagos Affair employs major thespianic talents like Cate Blanchett, Thomas Krestchmann, and Diane Kruger to provide voiceover readings of these accounts to dramatize them. The historical story is intercut with interviews with current Galapagos residents, many of them descended from the original inhabitants of neighbouring islands who encounters the Floreana cast of characters. These interviews attempt to contextualize the forces that drove people to move to these remote and inhospitable rocks in the ocean as well as those that keep people there today.

Like the murder mystery, the interviews don’t even approach a conclusive answer to any of the questions dogging the film. The philosophic Ritter might well agree, mind you, that location answers is infinitely less rewarding than asking the questions. The Galapagos Affair doesn’t wind up being quite as intriguing as it initially seems that it might be. The fits and starts of its real-life narrative frustrate the amateur sleuth viewer, seeking out telltales clues that would point to a culprit, and the modern-day contextual chats don’t really add much of interest. But The Galapagos Affair is about stretching the documentary form while simultaneously scribbling eccentric marginal notes for the oldest and most fundamental story of European Judeo-Christian civilization. It takes place at the unsettling crossroads where seminal Biblical morality plays meet harshly pragmatic natural selection, and neither explanatory paradigm offers full comfort from its troubling suggestions about human nature and social drives.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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