The tale reads like some far-fetched concoction of Hollywood’s Golden Age, based on a potboiler by W. Somerset Maugham.
A couple of misanthropic Germans abandon their marriages and flee to a desert isle for lives of “quiet contemplation.”
But scandalous accounts of their affair and their lifestyle lures others. The isolation of “paradise” is ruined. first by one group, then another. Personalities clash.
Tragedy ensues. We think. In any event, most of one group abruptly disappears and a mystery endures.
As “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden” makes clear, whatever its pulp fiction similarities, this really happened and in the most biologically important and remote islands on Earth, the famed Galapagos Islands off Ecuador.
This two hour documentary, released in 2014, uses archival footage of the people involved in the events here, interviews with those who actually knew the principals and their descendents to weave a story of “Robinson Crusoe” self-reliance, escape from a Europe just as the world was descending into the Great Depression and the human problems almost pre-ordained to develop once humans move someplace humans had not lived.
“There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.”
Steve Divine, whose family settled the Galapagos in the 1930s, recites that Robert W. Service poem by way of describing the hardy souls who relocated to the remote islands in those years. The most philosophical and quixotic of them would be Dr. Friedrich Ritter, a Nietzche buff who, with Dore Strauch, fled a spouse and Germany in 1929 to start new remarried lives, living off the land on uninhabited Floreana Island.
Dora wrote a book about their lives there, and Cate Blanchett, slinging her best German accent, narrates “We were alone, at last.”
But writing home to family and friends creates a leaked letter media narrative of sex and scandal and nudity and “natural living.” And they have Europe’s attention. Curiosity seekers and fellow “settlers” were sure to follow.
The Wittmer clan show up one day, uninvited, and establish life on the other side of
this 67 square mile island
. But as arid as it is, more desert than tropical, it has great fishing, volcanic soil where vegetables can be grown and feral hogs and goats roaming it. Even though the newcomers are quick to impose on their predecessors (Dr. Ritter will be needed as Mrs. Wittmer arrives pregnant), there’s enough room there for all, right?
Then the “Baroness” von Wagner Bosquet, an imperious temptress with two young men in tow, shows up, announces plans for a “Hacienda Paradiso” hotel (caves in the volcanic rock) and throws her weight around.
Things quietly go from tense to murderous.
Those who survived, and some of those who did not left behind letters, diaries, including the “Baroness” from Paris, who declared “The man has not been born who can resist me,” to Dr. Ritter (whose words are read by Thomas Kretschmann), who never had a nice word to say about anybody — even his wife — but whose harshest words were for the Baroness and her “theatrical servile gigolos.”
The mystery is, like the Amelia Earhart disappearance, unsolvable without a corpse or convincing confession. That’s not the strength of this film. Co-directors Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller are on their surest ground in recreating the rough-hewn lifestyle all endured, with occasional visits by mail boats and a research vessel where an impartial American etymologist (voiced by Josh Radnor) also left behind impressions, noting tensions and testiness amongst the handful of people on this big, empty island.
The tiny gene pool depicted here would delight Darwin, but tends to over-populate the film. Descendants of other families from nearby islands, Angermeyers, DeRoys and Divines, tell part of the tale and while their observations, and those of a local historian, add to the recreating the milieu and its stresses, those who never met the people involved tend to muddy the waters and confuse the film.
After all, the people involved — most of them — left behind vivid, terse, grudge-carrying written accounts, leaving the mystery just as unsolved as those speaking today.
And for all the color interviews with those who know the story and the island compiled by the filmmakers, the extensive archival footage — the Baroness got a short silent melodrama made with her and her paramours filmed — and ready supply of still images are far better at setting the scene and presenting the probable solution to the mystery.
“Satan Came to Eden,” the title of Strauch’s memoir, may be titillating, but it’s inaccurate. Man and Woman came to Floreana would be more on the nose, bringing their jealousies, competition for resources and determination to establish status even in a tiny hierarchy.
Adding more sources to the story don’t illuminate it, they extend it to no avail, turning a 90 minute movie into two hours that still don’t make the informed guessing more informed, or more entertaining.
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult themes, murder allegations
Cast: Carmen Angermeyer, Steve Divine, Octavio Latorre, Jacqueline DeRoy, Teppy Angermeyer, and the voices of Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Thomas Kretschman, Sebastian Kohc, Connie Nielsen and Josh Radnor
Credits:Directed by Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine. A Zeitgeist release.
Running time: 2:00