At first, before the murders, the story might sound like some nihilistic last-century tropical sitcom, what Sherwood Schwartz would have come up with if he’d been into Nietzsche. In 1929, German physician Friedrich Ritter, brain aflame with the promise of the superman, convinced his lover, Dore Strauch, to abandon Berlin in favor of a life of solitude, labor, and the triumphing of their wills. Their destination: the Galapagos Islands, specifically the unpopulated rock of Floreana, 60 miles from the nearest settlement. They had a fine time at first, as we see in the glorious home-movie footage that makes Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s absorbing, suspenseful documentary The Galapagos Affair so pleasurable and so disquieting. At the birthplace of Darwinism, we witness human potential give way to animalism.
First, though, we get promising comedy. We see strapping but twitchy Ritter hauling trees. Then Strauch slow-dances with a burro that, adorably, toddles about on its hind legs for her. Both of these long-gone adventurers wrote extensively of their wilderness life, and we’re treated to their thoughts read to us by ringers like Cate Blanchett. The chief reason Strauch signed up for this life despite suffering from MS whose symptoms Ritter decries as evidence of her mind’s failure to triumph over her body? Her disgust at the thought of being “a hausfrau”: “The emptiness and frustration of such an existence poison the spirit,” she declares. Friedrich is an even bitterer pill. As we smile at Strauch’s horseplay with that donkey, this severest of fellows carps, in Thomas Kretschmann’s voiceover, “Dore’s attachment to wild creatures is a source of great disappointment to me.”
They do triumph over their Eden, establishing a home, an abundant garden, even a rudimentary pump-action shower. But you don’t have to be a philosophy major to know what happens in stories of Paradise Gained. Ships occasionally visit the island and the couple, and before too many months have passed, word of Ritter and Strauch’s civilization-defying adventure has hit the rest of the world. (The headlines: “Modern Adam and Eve!” “Nudists & Cavemen”!) Soon, an unwelcome second couple arrives, the Wittmers, with a baby on the way. Margret Wittmer, a proud hausfrau, decks out a cave for her family with back-home aplomb. What’s the German for “there goes the neighborhood?”
Floreana’s barely big enough, but it shrinks once more with the arrival of Baroness Eloise von Wagner, a ripe, flimflamming dilettante who claims the land right next to the Wittmers’, announces her plans to build a hotel called Hacienda Paradiso, and shares her haphazardly built bed with a pair of attendants/lovers, one of whom the island’s other inhabitants consider a sort of bootlicking slave. Regal yet bohemian, she insisted that she was the niece of both Wagner and Liszt — and that anyone hunting the animals on Floreana would have to answer to her rifle.
Unlike Ritter and Strauch, the baroness and her men weren’t diarists, so we’re denied direct access to their thoughts. But she still proves a fascinating, inscrutable character, the details — sometimes contradictory — accruing from a surprisingly rich collection of newly restored footage and photos, as well as from the stories we hear from the other pioneers and their descendents. (Interviews with present-day Ecuadoreans offer context — and reveal that the gossip is still hot all these generations later.)
Master collagists, Goldfine and Geller at first work all this tension and strangeness for our amusement. They’re helped by the feisty baroness, who proved so enticing — and so gun-happy — a figure that she starred in even more exaggerated headlines than Ritter and Strauch had. She was the she-devil wilderness beauty, just built for the covers of men’s adventure magazines. She even embodied the role in a dopey yet wonderful silent short shot by an enchanted ship captain who cast her as sexpot jungle pirate. (This was the very early ’30s; her merry disregard for supportive undergarments could have made her the toast of pre-code Hollywood.) Onscreen, she’s a natural, an odd and radiant woman possessed of otherworldy charisma and confidence; no wonder that, despite the tensions between the island’s inhabitants, Ritter and Heinz Wittmer started paying visits to her cave.
Of course, she wasn’t really a baroness. And, of course, real-life sex comedies, like real-life Edens, tend not to end well. Eventually, the story leaves Schwartz for Hitchcock: There’s a murder, and then more surprises, all wickedly played by the participants and the filmmakers. I’ll spill nothing, even though the information is readily available online and in the book written by one of the first Floreanans — a story this well told deserves to be relished.
Goldfine and Geller pace and structure The Galapagos Affair like the true-crime tale that it is, its mysteries rich and involving, its characters enduring in the imagination long after the film has ended. How can you not be charmed by Strauch’s early lament, “Ceaseless manual toil dulls the edges of spiritual life.” You had to travel across the planet to learn that? However amusingly ponderous these settlers are, the heart of darkness revealed here has little to do with Nietzsche or paradise or anything lofty. It’s actually simple. The true reason we never can escape society, no matter where we move: We always bring us with us.