With the documentary The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden, directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine have accomplished something odd: successfully grounding a real-life tabloid story that could have stood to be a bit more sensationalized. Panning across still photos and scouring island maps like Ken Burns hunting for treasure, Geller and Goldfine (Ballets Russes) whittle a truly insane murder mystery into a competent artifact for Weird History buffs.
The setting is the tiny, uninhabited Galapagos island of Floreana in 1929, where Friedrich Ritter, a Nietzsche-loving German doctor, and his lover Dore Strauch flee from the civilized world. “Organized society appears to me as a huge, impersonal monster, forging ever-new chains with which to shackle its members,” Ritter wrote, and since both he and Strauch were also fleeing spouses, it seems likely he considered monogamy a part of society’s unholy beast. But the world has a way of catching up to those who least desire it: Once the story of this “modern-day Adam and Eve” made the rounds in Western media, the duo had company. First a German family arrived determined to live off the land. Then a deranged self-proclaimed Austrian Baroness, two slavish male handlers in tow, came ashore with plans to open a luxury hotel. Soon the Baroness disappeared from the island, with foul play strongly suspected.
Geller and Goldfine’s biggest assets are the treasure trove of photos and videos they unearthed from Floreana. The most amazing passage is a short homemade silent film starring the Baroness as an island pirate queen, warding off an ignorant traveling couple played by her handlers (one in drag). In effect, the Baroness used the medium of film to invert Floreana’s real-life narrative, casting herself as the native and Ritter and Strauch stand-ins as the interlopers. It’s wonderfully strange, not least because of the beguiling question it poses: Who on Earth was the film made for?
When relying on their own stylistic devices instead of the Baroness’, the filmmakers recede to a more pedestrian level. Celebrities including Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, and Josh Radnor supply plain voiceovers of the islanders’ writings, usually over still photos, and the point of view changes so haphazardly it’s difficult to keep all the personalities straight. Footage of Floreana’s modern-day descendants chatting about the past and co-mingling with wildlife doesn’t feel organically integrated with the historical sequences. The film also takes its sweet time getting to the actual murder, the emphasis on minutiae over narrative giving what was already a specialty documentary an even more limited appeal.
The case of what happened to the Baroness remains unsolved, with every past and present islander carrying their own theory. Some even believe she vanished somehow and wasn’t murdered at all. The Galapagos Affair presents all these theories, but doesn’t seem to show a particular interest in the truth; Geller and Goldfine are more concerned with the self-contained world of the island and the broader implications of trying to create a truly isolated society. All well and good, but metaphors are generally better served when allowed the opportunity to evolve out of the story on their own. This is the Galapagos, after all: Natural selection should count for something.