Filmmaking team Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s sui generis documentary about an unspoiled Pacific Ocean island and unsolved murders, “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,” sticks in the memory like a dream.
The story of human habitation of the Galapagos, focusing in on the five-year sojourn (1929-1934) in “paradise” of two German free-thinkers, Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch, is inventively told through a mashup of sources: archival home movies and still photos; a contemporaneous silent (and very strange) narrative film about a she-pirate made by a wealthy ship captain/amateur scientist; voice performances (based on the writings of the prolific protagonists) by actors including Cate Blanchett, Connie Nielsen, Diane Kruger, Thomas Kretschmann and Josh Radnor; interviews with long-time residents of the larger Galapagos island of Santa Cruz (several descendants of settlers who had fled Europe during Hitler’s rise) and gorgeous HD footage of the islands’ flora and fauna.
Ritter, 43, a Berlin doctor and avid reader of Neitzsche, and his lover, Strauch, 28, rejecting the rules and mores of bourgeois society, abandoned their families and arrived at unoccupied Floreana on September 19, 1929. They trekked inland and cleared jungle, establishing their settlement, which, combining their names, they dubbed Friedo.
Their intentions were to live pure spiritual and intellectual lives. Ritter, suprememly self-assured, planned to write philosophical treatises, eager to take his place in the pantheon of great thinkers. But Strauch was soon disillusioned by the reality of their existence, “This Eden is not a place of rest, it’s (more) manual work, less contemplation or spirituality.” And as Ritter became distant and dismissive (“our relationship deteriorates”), she found comfort with animals, particular a burro. In amazing footage, she lifts it up onto its hind legs and holding its front hooves, the two do something resembling the cha-cha.
After a visit in 1931 by The Velero III, Southern Californian industrialist/patron of science/cellist Allan Hancock’s research vessel, whose crew included a young entomologist John Garth, Ritter and Strauch’s bold experiment was breathlessly (and often inaccurately) detailed in international newspapers.
The articles inspired Margret and Heinz Wittmer to seek a healthful life for their sickly son Harry, and eager to leave the economic and political upheaval of Germany, arrived on Floreana in late summer 1931. Ritter and Strauch, infuriated to have neighbors, forced the Wittmers to make their home in a cave, an hour’s walk from Friedo.
But it was the October 1931 arrival of self-styled Austrian Baroness Eloise von Wagner, (with her two younger German lovers), with plans to develop a luxury hotel, Hacienda Paradiso, for visiting yachtsmen, that upended the peaceful possibilities of Floreana. Described by Strauch as “frivolous yet sinister,” the Baroness (whose luggage included guns), aggressively claimed Floreana as her own, which led to her unexplained disappearance with one of her men and their likely murder in spring 1934.
Shocked by how few people were required to establish “civilization”–or certainly its discontents–in an intended Eden, and after Ritter’s death in November 1934, which Strauch attributed to eating contaminated meat (although Margret Wittmer suspected something more sinister), she returned to Germany.
Alone on the island, the Wittmers survived and suited for life on Floreana, thrived in a fashion, leaving the cave, building a house and a hotel, which is still run by their daughter Floreanita, born on the island in 1937.
Residents of Santa Cruz dismiss the the Ritters and the Baroness’ particular ideas of paradise. Gil De Roy, whose parents immigrated from Belgium to Santa Cruz in 1955, says, “Little town, big hell.” Friedel Horneman, born to a German mother and Norwegisn father in the Santa Cruz highlands in 1940, said, “Paradise is not a place. It’s a condition.”
“The Galapagos Affair” will open at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Friday, April 4, with Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller in person on Friday for a Q&A after the 6:50 pm show and to intro the 9:20 pm show and on Saturday for a Q&A after the 4:15 pm show and to intro the 6:50 pm show. The film will open in San Francisco on Friday, April 11, Los Angeles on Friday, April 18, and will be followed by a national release.