Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden...

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden is the sort of hypnotic documentary that will be fun to stumble across on PBS some night in the future, when the wind is blowing outside and you've been left alone for the evening with nothing to do but enjoy a strange tale of love triangles and mysterious disappearances, with a bit of high seas adventure thrown in. 

The movie, directed by Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller, reaches back to 1929 when two misguided souls build a home on Floreana, a small, desolate island in the remote Galápagos archipelago, 575 miles west of Ecuador in the southern Pacific. Friedrich Ritter, a self-possessed follower of Nietzsche who imagined himself a philosopher of equal importance, and his fragile female companion Dore Strauch, left their respective spouses to live together on this island with no company aside from giant turtles and lizards.

Dore is too far into the relationship to see that Friedrich is nothing but a temperamental dilettante with a lot of quack theories about civilization.  He spends most of his time trying to build their home, and fashioning a shower out of a nearby stream -- he's handy for a Nietzche wannabe -- while she's left to play with her pet donkey, struggle with her multiple sclerosis, and write in her journal, which would later provide much of the movie's narrative. The home movie footage we see shows Dore in a steady decline. She's an attractive woman,  but within a few frames she seems dazed and unkempt. The harsh weather and boredom of island life wasn't good to her.

A second couple arrives on the island, the far more plebeian Heinz and Margret Wittmer. The Witmer's are so dull that even Dore, who craves human contact, is disappointed, dismissing Margret as a typical German "hausfrau." If the Witmers are bland, the next visitors to the island more than make up for them.

Eloise von Wagner Bosquet, a self-described baroness accompanied by two young gigolos, Robert and Rudolf,  hits the island like the proverbial hurricane. She introduces her two studs as the architect and engineer of what she imagines will be a grand hotel, perfect for wayward travelers who happen to be  575 miles west of Ecuador. That the trio end up living in filth doesn't seem to bother the giggling, bright-eyed baroness.  Shortly after her arrival, Eloise begins referring to herself as the island’s “empress,” and slaps together a sign written in lipstick welcoming her "friends."

Eloise's arrival sends the small island community into disarray. In time, the other islanders complain of hearing gun shots and loud screams coming from Eloise's place. Rudolph, the more subservient of the two gigolos, is soon exiled from the trio, and begins spending time with the Witmers. Eloise, perhaps the Satan of the title, toys with him, as she toyed with everyone. She even talks a visiting Captain into making a short movie from her own screenplay, with her in the lead role as a vampy pirate. The little film is amazing to watch 80 years later. Rudolph, fitted with a humiliating blond wig, is cast in the film as a woman. The vampish Eloise struts and preens for the camera, getting the male characters to do her bidding. She'd obviously spent some of her time on the mainland watching Theda Bara movies.

The story turns lurid when the baroness and one of her studs disappears from the island with no trace. A pair of  mysterious deaths follow. You'll have your own theories as to who did what to whom and why. I certainly had mine.

“The Galapagos Affair” is beautifully illustrated with photographs and vintage home movies, and enhanced by excerpts from diaries and journals. These islanders documented much of their daily lives, which was a boon for  Goldfine and Geller. (I particularly loved the old magazine and news clippings that made the baroness look like a whip-wielding vixon right out of Depression era pulp fiction.) The narrative, smartly patched together by the directors and screenwriter  Celeste Schaefer Snyder, is read by actors including Cate Blanchett (Dore Strauch), Sebastian Koch (Heinz Wittmer), Thomas Kretschmann (Friedrich Ritter), Diane Kruger (Margret Wittmer), Connie Nielsen (Baroness Eloise von Wagner), Josh Radnor (John Garth) and Gustaf Skarsgard (Rolf Blomberg). They do a marvelous job, particularly Blanchett as the forlorn Dore, and Nielsen as the dippy baroness.

Was Eloise really Satan? Was the island really Eden? I don't think so. Eloise and Friedrich had a lot in common, for he was no more a philosopher than she was an actual baroness. They'd both sought out territory where they could reinvent themselves and live out a fantasy. I think of them both as slightly spoiled, with an oversized sense of entitlement. As we learn from the movie, you can't entirely escape civilization, and you certainly can't escape yourself.

For the most part, the movie works, although it takes a bit too long to get to the cryptic stuff, and the drone of Laura Karpman's music made me feel sleepy. Interviews with surviving family members and island experts don't add much to the story, either. Still, it's a great story and an intriguing piece of history, right down to the curse of the giant tortoise, a strange island creature with the alleged ability to read one's worst thoughts. The turtle can put a curse on you if he thinks you're up to no good. Judging by the number of photos taken with islanders sitting on the poor animal's back, it's no wonder he cursed them.


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