As far as documentary subjects go, it doesn’t get much juicier than the tale that launches “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden.” In the early 1930s, Friedrich Ritter and his mistress Dore Strauch split from their respective partners, left Germany and headed to the tiny, uninhabited, untamed Floreana Island in the Galapagos, where they dreamed of building a bucolic life, where they would rest, study philosophy and be able to pursue intellectual matters without the interruption of modern living. Those hopes are dashed when they are soon followed by others who come to the island, with scandal and possibly murder not far behind, and a yarn that is as unbelievable now as it probably was back then. But what should be a gripping, true crime/mystery story gets often bogged down by a lack of focus from filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, who don’t always realize the central saga can stand well enough on its own.
Certainly, the cast of characters and personalities is pretty rich. Friedrich is a hardcore Nietzsche devotee, and a doctor, but one who doesn’t brook any weakness, not even from Dore, who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His prescription is essentially that she shouldn’t think like a sick person, and he’s disheartened when she can’t keep up with the physically demanding labor of clearing the land and building shelter. He’s even more dismayed when she showers affection on a donkey, but soon he’ll be able to point his disappointment elsewhere. Reading about Friedrich and Dore’s exploits in German newspapers after their letters home are leaked, Heinz Wittmer and his pregnant wife Margret follow in their footsteps, but are almost immediately rebuffed on their arrival. Friedrich wants no part of them, and even refuses to tend to Margret medically, but the pair of couples quickly unite against a common enemy: Baroness Eloise von Wagner.
Arriving in tow with two young men, Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorenz, Eloise behaves like royalty, expects to be welcomed without question and has an even bolder plan: to build a hotel. This incenses Friedrich, while Eloise and her lovers close proximity to Heinz and Margret also causes another array of problems. It’s a rich, dramatic and fascinating stew, and at least for a while, Goldfine and Geller make it compelling. An all star voice cast including Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Connie Nielsen, Sebastian Koch, Thomas Kretschmann and Josh Radnor give life to the letters and writings from all the players involved that have survived, providing character context this kind of documentary rarely gets. Moreover, home video footage from the time also brings additional texture, but the film takes far too long to get to the good stuff.
One can’t fault the ambition, though the execution is clumsy, with the directors spending just as much time on the modern day inhabitants of the island, where the titular ‘Galapagos Affair’ is still the source of some chatter. The problem is, there’s not much insight from those either directly related to the original settlers, or others who have attempted to parse the gossip and find the truth. These meandering sections of the film dilute the magnetism of the central mystery, one that involves delusions of fame, a cheap silent movie, a possible conspiracy, tragic deaths, jealousy and more. The richness of the material that Goldfine and Geller have access to is more than sufficient, but as ‘The Galapagos Affair’ creeps toward the two hour mark, with each minute making it clear that not only will there be no solution, but no real underlying thematic current either.
Though flirting with myth and fable — including an opening teasing the Curse of the Giant Tortoise — “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden” doesn’t reach those heights. Even the subtitle is misleading as it’s unclear who the Satan of this tale actually is. Of the filmmakers want to join the line between the unknowability of evil and what unfolds on the island, it never quite comes together. It’s likely you haven’t heard a story as wild as this one in a while, but the digressions diminish how weird and odd it all was, particularly as the events unfolded in the span of a few short years. Goldfine and Geller want to understand the motivations behind the actions that led to what can only be presumed to be murder, but they forget that sometimes just experiencing a tale as surreal is this one is all you need to know to comprehend that there are no easy explanations. [B-]