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There’s big trouble in paradise in The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a true-life story so rife with melodrama, exotic lifestyles, sexual intrigue and suspicious deaths that it’s surprising that no film has been made about it until now. This inescapably fascinating documentary about a handful of Europeans who couldn’t get along when they separately settled on one of the tiny uninhabited islands in the Pacific west of South America in the early 1930s combines contemporary material with fantastic film footage taken at the time and excellent dramatic readings by a fine international cast. Helpfully trimmed by nine minutes since its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, the Zeitgeist pickup will play well with upscale audiences, a constituency that will appreciate how this unsolved mystery throws the vagaries of human nature into sharp relief. It could also inspire, at last, a dramatic version of this truly bizarre episode.
Anyone who imagines that their problems could be solved just by “getting away from it all” will definitely think twice after seeing this latest collaboration by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller (Ballets Russes). Indeed, the entire concept of an Earthly paradise, a place where one can escape the issues and conflicts inherent in society, is called into question by this sordid tale, which within a few years yielded a far higher mortality rate than even the most dangerous cities.
PHOTOS: 12 of Hollywood’s Most Mysterious Deaths
There is surprise even at the outset. The Galapagos are usually perceived from the Darwinian perspective as pristine nature untrammeled by human influence. But some of the nearly 20 islands are very much settled by beings other than birds and lizards. In 1929, however, this was not the case on Floreana, the second-southernmost of the islands, when, leaving his wife behind, Berlin physician Friedrich Ritter, 43, brought his younger lover, the also married Dore Strauch, to live in splendid isolation. A vegetarian and devotee of Nietzsche’s notion of the Superman, Friedrich determined to write philosophical texts while living a rugged physical life at one with nature. He and Dora would be “like Adam and Eve in paradise.”
If so, Dora at least initially got the short end of the stick thanks to Friedrich’s unbending attitudes about women. Terrific home-movie footage and still photos show them at the home they built on a tropical but not in all ways inviting little island. Thanks to published accounts that appeared about their private Eden, more Germans — Heinz Wittmer, his pregnant wife Margret and teenage son Harry — turned up within three years.
Not exactly welcomed with open arms by Friedrich, the Wittmers were shown to a cave up a mountainside and settled in. But if Friedrich thought this relatively bourgeois family was annoying, he had another thing coming with the arrival of the so-called Austrian Baroness Eloise von Wagner Bosquet and her “servile gigolos” Robert and Rudolf. Far from beautiful, she nonetheless had a glamorous, larger-than-life personality that proved seductive to most men, with the conspicuous exception of Friedrich, who loathed her almost as much as he was aghast at her plan to build a luxury resort on the island.
Thanks to the Baroness, who carried a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray with her wherever she went, more yachts arrived, publicity about the menage a trois ensued and disenchantment set in accompanied by a terrible drought in 1934, all setting the stage for a series of mysterious fatal incidents that, as one observer remarks, would have required Sherlock Holmes to solve.
PHOTOS: Telluride Film Festival: The Films
Among the vast store of 16mm home movie footage, which was discovered in an archive at USC, is a a goofy “narrative” one-reeler starring the Baroness and the hunkier of her two lovers. As most of the surviving participants wrote journals, letters and/or memoirs relating to their time on Floreana, an abundance of first-hand commentary fills the soundtrack, all spoken by an illustrious cast: Cate Blanchett (Dore Strauch), Thomas Kretschmann (Friedrich Ritter), Diane Kruger (Margret Wittmer), Sebastian Koch (Heinz Wittmer), Connie Nielsen (the Baroness), Josh Radnor (entomologist John Garth, who visited the islands annually on the yacht of millionaire American patron Allan Hancock) and Gustaf Skarsgard (Rolf Blomberg, the Swedish journalist who broke the story of what happened on Floreana).
Additional dimensions of insight and local color are added by interviews with descendants, relatives and acquaintances of the participants, who provide, as much as anything else, an idea of the limitations of life in such a thinly populated region of the world.
It’s a lot of material to sort out and balance, but Goldfine and Geller do a good job of it as they keep the personalities and chronology clear. They restrain themselves from veering into what could have become lurid melodrama but, at the same time, the film could have used more of what might simply be called the dramatic instincts of narrative filmmakers; there are still perhaps too many sedentary talking heads of distantly-connected locals, observers who don’t really have much to say about the story once its secrets and ongoing mysteries have been revealed. After building up a narrative head of steam, the film relaxes too much back into expository documentary form. What might have been thrilling is merely entirely engrossing.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Opens: Spring 2014 (Zeitgeist Films)
Production: Geller Goldfine
Voice cast: Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Connie Nielsen, Thomas Kretschmann, Sebastian Koch, Josh Radnor, Gustaf Skarsgard
With: Octavio Latorre, Fritz Hieber, Jacqueline and Gil De Roy, Tul De Roy, Teppy Angermeyer, Steve Divine, Carmen Kubler Angermeyer, Jacob Lundh, Daniel Fitter Angermeyer, Rolf Wittmer, Jorge Antonio Mahauad, Floreanita Wittmer, Friedel Horneman, Jose Machuca, Claudio Cruz
Directors: Dayna Goldfine, Dan Geller
Writers: Dayna Goldfine, Dan Geller, Celeste Schaefer Snyder, based n the books, journals, articles and letters of Dore Strauch, Margret Wittner, Friedrich Ritter, Heinz Wittner, John Garth
Producers: Dan Geller, Dayna Goldfine, Celeste Schaefer Snyder
Executive producer: Jonathan Dana
Director of photography: Dan Geller
Editor: Bill Weber
Music: Laura Karpman
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