The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (2013)

*. About the only thing I know about the Galápagos Islands is that Charles Darwin visited them and made some notes and observations that later helped buttress his theory of evolution. Like the documentary filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, at least before they took a job shooting a nature documentary there in 1998, I didn’t even know that anyone lived there. I thought they were a big nature preserve people could only visit. In fact, in 2020 they had a population of over 33,000.
*. Geller and Goldfine heard the story of the mysterious disappearance of a couple of residents of Floreana Island in the 1930s but didn’t think there was a movie in it until a trove of film made on the island featuring all of the principal players in the drama was discovered in the archives at USC. Now they had something.
*. The background: In 1929 the German doctor and budding Nietzschean superman Friedrich Ritter, along with his lover Dore Strauch, set up camp on the then deserted island of Floreana. A little later another German couple, Heinz and Margret Wittmer, arrived and carved out their own homestead some distance away. And then the colourful figure of “Baroness” (an invented title) von Wagner Bosquet arrived with two “servile gigolos” (Friederich Ritter’s caustic label) in tow. The gigolos (also German) were Robert Philippson and Rudolph Lorenz. The Baroness started taking on airs, styling herself the Empress of Floreana. Lorenz also found himself getting sidelined as Gigolo #2. Then one day the Baroness and Philippson disappeared.
*. I think everyone figures the two were murdered, but their bodies were never found. Nor is it clear who would have “dun it.” Presumably Lorenz was involved, possibly with the help of Friedrich Ritter and/or Heinz Wittmer. We’ll never know, as Lorenz tried to get off the island as quickly as possible and ended up dying in the attempt, Ritter died, also under mysterious circumstances, a little later, and Margret Wittmer, who lived to a ripe old age (the filmmakers even spoke to her in the 1990s) knew how to keep quiet about such matters.
*. The story was an international sensation, as it pushed a lot of the buttons that still make true crime documentaries go viral today. The French author Georges Simenon even wrote a timely novel (Ceux de la soif) based on the events in 1934. And because it’s a case that’s never been solved it keeps its hold on the imagination.
*. It’s a well put together doc, expanding on what happened nearly 100 years ago on Floreana by talking to the descendants of families that settled on the main island nearby and getting some idea of the sort of personality that would go this route. My own response to the settlers was divided. Impressed at their resiliency and ability to make a go of it under very harsh and isolated conditions, but also shocked at their presumptuousness and idiocy. Dore Strauch (Cate Blanchett provides her voice) had multiple sclerosis when she went out. Margret Wittmer was pregnant, and desperate for assistance from Ritter when she came to give birth. What were these people thinking?
*. Different things. There have always been types like this, wanting to get away from civilization and other people in general. A more extreme sort of Thoreau, who after all could walk into the village of Concord anytime he wanted, and often did. But the extremity is the real difference maker here. These people really were on their own. Until they weren’t. Because this might have been Eden, but hell is other people. And once the Ritters (who weren’t a happy couple to begin with) had to deal with neighbours they had to confront what one visitor called “the problem of social adjustment.” In some ways I think they handled it better than expected. But something had to give.
*. The subtitle came from a book written by one of the islanders and it actually stumped me. I suppose Satan is meant to be the Baroness, but she’s the one who gets killed. The way I see it, Satan could be pretty much any of the people we meet. Or just people in general.
*. The Baroness, on the other hand, was not a loner. She even wanted to start a hotel on the island. To be honest, I’m not sure what was driving her. She may have been the biggest weirdo of all. Maybe not so obnoxious as to drive someone to murder, but then this was an extreme environment.
*. I’ve written a lot before about how different film genres change, mostly in giving us more sensational action or gore or whatever. The true crime documentary, which was in the process of really taking off at this time, has followed a similar pattern. Today, most of these shows start off leading you to believe something and then hit a point where they pull the rug out from under you and force you to re-evaluate everything that’s gone before.
*. The Galapagos Affair does its best to play this game. There are a couple of twists, like the discovery of Lorenz’s end and the mystery of Ritter’s death. There are unanswered questions relating to both of these matters. But overall there’s something missing from all of this. Ironically given the remarkable amount of material they had to work with, from letters to the films made on the island at exactly this time, it’s hard to get a read on any of these people. No matter how close or intimate we seem to get to them, they keep a safe distance, their private selves concealed behind a wall of play-acting or tactical silence. Some weight is put here on a single photo of Ritter and the Baroness standing close to one another but I found it impossible to interpret. Were they enemies? Intimate? Indifferent to each other? You be the judge.
*. It’s still a good movie, and you’ll come away learning a lot not just about this incident but about the settlement of the Galapagos in general. Also, the fact that so little is known for sure about what really happened leaves you with a pleasant feeling of wonder. Because if Lorenz and Ritter were the guilty parties, for example, they didn’t really get away with it. What happened on Floreana stayed on Floreana. There was no place else for it to go, and the tortoises aren’t talking.

7 thoughts on “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (2013)

      1. Bookstooge

        My record speaks for itself.
        I can neither confirm nor deny that I was anywhere near the aforementioned place within that time period.

      2. Bookstooge

        My lawyers, of the firm Rockstar, Rockstar and Rockstar, will be filing a dease and cesist order on you for such slander. You’re going down!

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