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Mysterious Island: The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men -- and Marine Iguanas

The Galapagos Affair


This documentary is “Exhibit A” for proving that old maxim: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” The atavistic impulse to “get away from it all” and leave the proverbial rat race and “return to nature” has been a theme in literature and other arts since Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson were castaways on so-called “desert islands.” Archaeologist and would-be Thoreau Thor Heyerdahl wrote a nonfiction book called Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature, about his attempt to live close to the land in the Marquesas Islands in the 1930s.

During that same decade, a few Germans and other Europeans got the same notion, but instead of settling in the South Seas -- like Heyerdahl, Herman Melville, Paul Gauguin, Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as your humble scribe, who followed in their footsteps -- they relocated to the Pacific archipelago off of Ecuador’s coast.

But, as the doc’s title suggests, The Galapagos Affair, Satan Came To Eden is a chronicle of the best laid plans of mice and men going terribly, terribly wrong amidst the marina iguanas, tortoises and other wildlife that the Galapagos is famous for. (Although the islands glimpsed onscreen are not nearly as lushly, extravagantly beautiful as those in the South Pacific.) This doc is also a chronicle of human stupidity -- if not madness -- on a stupendous scale.

The Galapagos Affair

Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter

Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller are veteran documentarians who previously collaborated on nonfiction films about dancer Isadora Duncan and on the Ballet Russes. Affair’s co-directors do a very skillful job in unraveling the dramatic incidents that unfolded on Floreana -- one of the more remote, uninhabited isles of an already extremely remote archipelago -- 80 years ago. However, for some strange reason, key points of reference to the obscure Galapagos are never mentioned, including Melville’s stories about them called The Encantadas and Charles Darwin’s visit there aboard the Beagle in his quest to prove the theory of evolution.

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The island chain of events began when Friedrich Ritter, a German doctor, and his Berliner lover and patient, Dore Strauch (who is voiced by Cate Blanchett), renounced civilization and its discontents and relocated to the far-flung Galapagos in 1929. Ritter was a self-professed Nietzschean who eschewed being a physician in favor of being an “Übermensch” in a state of nature at Floreana, far from the madding crowd. But the Germanic “super” couple are unable to leave behind the baggage of themselves, as Dore suffered from multiple sclerosis and was in need of frequent medical attention -- not the backbreaking labor life in the wilderness required, which generated conflict between the two. To compound their problems, from time to time visitors sailed to the distant isles, and word got out about these so-called “modern day Robinson Crusoes,” and to the outside world suffering from the Depression they became celebrities, depicted as a sort of contemporary Adam and Eve living a supposedly Edenic existence.

This inspired others to try to “return to nature” at Floreana, including another German couple, Margaret and Heinz Wittmer, of Cologne, Germany. She was pregnant, but without even corresponding with Ritter first, the couple just showed up on Floreana’s shores, expecting not only a baby but Ritter to minister to her as her personal physician, without so much as a “by your leave.” Naturally, their uninvited presence and demands being thrust upon him infuriated the reclusive Ritter, who now was being imposed upon by total strangers, not only to help them to survive but to play doctor again -- something he had tried to give up, but was obligated to do to help Dore frequently.

The Galapagos Affair

Enter the Galapagos gal: Into this combustible mix next came the self-styled Baroness Eloise von Wagner and two German paramours. The eccentric Austrian woman began making a series of outrageous demands, combined with outlandish behavior, as she planned to build a resort at this remote “Edenic” outpost. To make a long story short, all hell broke loose in what was supposed to be a heaven filled with iguanas, tortoises, penguins, exotic birds and more. And, as the press notes aptly put it, it’s “Darwin meets Hitchcock” time.

The Galapagos Affair

Goldfine and Geller adroitly use archival footage -- much of it shot by a California moneybags and yachtie who sailed to the Galapagos from time to time -- and original interviews with island residents, some of them children and grandchildren of the real life tale’s protagonists, to relate this mysterious yarn with its age-old moral of the story about being careful about what one wishes for: as you just might get it -- and then some. To give you an idea how dire the circumstances became at this would-be paradise, Dore Strauch eventually deserted it, finding Nazi Germany to be preferable to her little utopia gone wrong. By providing Dore’s voice, Cate Blanchett incarnates a character even more pathetic than the one she scored an Oscar for portraying in Woody Allen’s 2013 Blue Jasmine.

Even in Genesis, there was a snake in Eden that resulted in Adam and Eve being expelled from paradise. But in The Galapagos Affair, Satan Came To Eden, the characters’ expulsion is not from eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge -- but, arguably, from eating the forbidden fruit of all-too-human stupidity.

Ed Rampell

The Galapagos Affair is currently playing in New York and L.A. at Laemmle’s Royal, Playhouse 7 and Claremont 5; it opens Friday, April 25 at Town Center 5 in Encino.

Ed Rampell

The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: