The pre-credit sequence of The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden promises a “strange and sinister drama,” and uses dramatic headlines to sensationalize the fact that it contains “one mystery on top of another.” However, despite some intriguing moments, this overlong documentary is as slow as the giant tortoises that inhabit the island paradise of Floreana, where much of the action unfolds. Moreover, viewers unfamiliar with the source material (“Satan Came to Eden” by Dore Strauch) will need a scorecard to keep track of the many extraneous characters.
This strange, but true, story opens in 1929. Friedrich Ritter (voiced by Thomas Kretschmann), decides to turn his back on civilization and live with his mistress Dore Strauch (voiced by Cate Blanchett) at the “world’s end,” in the Galapagos islands. The filmmakers, Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, make the point that Ritter didn’t quite fit into conventional Berlin society. He was a “genius with a dark side,” and his efforts to get away from others only proved he didn’t get along with others when “intruders” came to Floreana.
The film sets up the conflict with the arrival of another couple, Heinz (voiced by Sebastian Koch) and Margret (voiced by Diane Kruger) Wittmer. They adapt well to island life, whereas vegetarians Friedrich and Dore (who has multiple sclerosis) struggle, and find their new home is no place to rest. While not especially friendly, the increasingly tense situation is further complicated by the arrival of Baroness Eloise von Wagner Bosquet (voiced by Connie Nielsen), who is accompanied by Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorenz, her two lovers. She hopes to realize her dream of building a grand hotel on the island, much to the other couples’ chagrin.
Suffice it to say, the Baroness’ arrival disrupts things greatly. When she received gifts from visitors to the island, it sparked jealousy. And her antics generated unwanted (and maybe they are true?) headlines about having a court of twelve noblemen or a terror regiment. In one of the film’s best vignettes, a pirate film the Baroness made, entitled, The Empress of Floreana is shown, and features seduction, betrayal, and even some cross-dressing. Mid-way through the short, it is revealed that the Baroness may not be who she says she is. This is an interesting, but not unexpected, wrinkle in a story full of unanswered questions.
The Galapagos Affair raises many theories about the island’s inhabitants. Was there jealousy among the women? Did the Baroness have an affair with Ritter? And when the Baroness and Philippson disappear, were they murdered? There are emphatic, dramatic moments about Lorenz’s insistence on selling his lover’s things. It is “shocking” when a tablecloth and a copy of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” that belonged to the Baroness turn up on the island after she is gone, suggesting murder is afoot.
The filmmakers play up the “everyone has a motive” for killing her (and Philippson), but it seems to be only speculative. The Galapagos Affair espouses theories that build without payoff. When Ritter dies, there are two stories—one about Dore and one accusing Margret—that “explain” his demise. Audiences are asked to choose the one they think is appropriate. It is an unsatisfying approach to the mystery.
Throughout the film, there are interviews with living descendants of Floreana families and they talk about growing up on the island as being a wonderful experience. They also address the possibility of the island being haunted, as well as “inbreeding,” as when one living relative, Carmen Angermeyer, explains how marriage between islanders made her father-in-law her brother-in-law. It may be an amusing anecdote, but it seems slightly irrelevant to the central mysteries at hand.
In addition, a sequence featuring the childhood home of Ritter, and a scene at his family gravesite, seem extraneous. Photos show, and a voiceover explains, how he was scarred by World War I. This may provide context for his obsession with Nietzsche, and his need to drop out of society, but it just hangs there like most of the facts on display.
Geller and Goldfine further stretch out the film’s running time by showcasing scenes of the flora and fauna of the Galapagos throughout the telling of their tale. These moments may be breathers to allow viewers to absorb all the dense information, but they also seem to emphasize that this story could have been told more briskly and efficiently.
That said, the use of photographs, film clips, and voiceovers of letters and other published writings, are well done. There is something interesting about this unsolved mystery. Alas, The Galapagos Affair buries the lede.
© 2014 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.