By Mike Dub
*Opening today at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Most people, at least a few times in their lives, have had the urge to abandon society and move to some uninhabited island and live off the land in peaceful isolation. However, almost all of us come to our senses pretty quickly, stifling the desire for blissful autonomy in favor of the convenience and security of civilization.
The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a mysterious and immersive historical documentary from Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, tells the story of three small groups of Europeans in the late 1920s who do not come to their senses, who do remove themselves from civilization. However, their utopia comes to a disastrous end under a cloud of adultery, greed, and murder. Through the use of incredible archival footage, diaries and memoirs, the film brings to life the sad parable of a group seeking utopia, but who instead find the frailty of humanity.
The directors begin by constructing a detailed history of the uncomfortable commingling of the three sects of voyagers. First, the deserted island is discovered by Friedrich Ritter, a German doctor and Nietzschean philosopher, and his lover, Dore Strauch. Despite the true hardships of life on the island (“Our Eden is no place of rest,” Strauch writes), their story is publicized by sensational newspapers in Berlin, inspiring a second couple, the Wittmers, to join them. Annoyed by the encroachment of others on his domain, Ritter reaches an uneasy compromise with the Wittmers, and he helps them find shelter over an hour’s walk away from his camp.
Things really go south, though, with the arrival of Baroness Von Wagner and her two male lovers. She has come, she says, to build a hotel for European tourists. Even the Wittmers, themselves interlopers, take offense to the intrusion of the new arrivals on their space. Tensions build, and soon the island is a manifestation of the exact sort of human corruption that its inhabitants sought to flee. Social gatherings require the neighbors to don likable facades, clandestine alliances are formed, and seemingly everyone starts engaging in illicit affairs.
This is a murder mystery, but the film allows a sophisticated pace to take hold and draw us in, focusing on the home movie footage shot by a crew of researchers who visit the island. Expertly restored clips allow us a glimpse into their lives, as we see them garden, pose, struggle, and play. The high point of the documentary is a silent film the islanders shot themselves, in which the Baroness plays an exotic seductress, casting her spell over one man and manipulating him into murdering another. Practically an exemplar of auteur cinema, it’s easy to see how the Baroness saw herself: a sexually liberated, dominating force who refused to let anyone get in her way. It also eerily foreshadows the disturbing events to come.
Galapagos is a surprisingly suspenseful documentary, as it builds to a series of climactic episodes. Though narrated primarily in voiceover from historical texts, the film never feels stiff. The voiceovers are expertly performed by an impressive cast, including Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Sebastian Koch, and Thomas Kretschmann, bringing a dynamic professionalism to what might otherwise have turned into a dull photo exhibit.
The film also weaves together a portrait of modern day Galapagos, with interviews that give perspective on the nature of living in an isolated world. The transitions are not always seamless, and sometimes feel like a diversion from the real story, but they remain fascinating glimpses into a world most of us will never know.