Beast of Eden: Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter set up camp in the Galapagos Islands in 1929
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Death in paradise: Ryan Gilbey on The Galapagos Affair

Drawing largely on home movies shot by the subjects in the 1930s, the picture pieces together the circumstances that led to several unexplained deaths. 

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (cert TBC)
dirs: Dayna Goldfine, Dan Geller

A brief internet search for the Galapagos Islands produces images of never-ending blue skies upstaged only by the unruffled azure seas and unblemished beaches spread out beneath them. The makers of The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a documentary set on the archipelago, suffered rotten luck, if the footage they brought back is anything to go by. The tourist board won’t thank them for shots of coastlines tangled with barbed-wire creepers or clouds stacked like dirty dishes on the grey enamel horizon. The Galapagos tortoise, no party animal at the best of times, looks suicidal. I think it’s fair to say that this effect was deliberate. Limbo-dancing and pina coladas wouldn’t have suited a film that is, as its title suggests, more Agatha Christie than Thomas Cook.

Drawing largely on home movies shot by the subjects in the 1930s, the picture pieces together the circumstances that led to several unexplained deaths. In 1929, Friedrich Ritter leaves Germany to start a new life with Dore Strauch. He is a doctor, she his devoted former patient. They love each other. Or rather, she loves him, while he suspects she might be a cut above most “weak and cowardly” women. They are well matched in their physical oddness: Friedrich with his features squashed into the lower half of his face, exposing a steep, brainiac forehead, and Dore with her thick eyebrows like two lines of distant tanks. They have both had it up to here with society, that “huge impersonal monster . . . [chasing the] valueless”, as Friedrich calls it. For their unspoiled home, they choose Floreana, an island 60 miles from its nearest neighbour. Cate Blanchett reads from Dore’s writings in a voice stern but almost trembling: “Life can make a poor end of fine and admirable beginnings.”

The first problem that the couple encounter is one another. He is brusque and unloving; she is lonely. A nearby donkey provides companionship and a shoulder to cry on but have you ever asked one for relationship advice? In desperation, Dore longs for another human being to materialise, even a cannibal or a buccaneer.

Enter the Wittmers. They are admirers of Friedrich’s writing and have come to Floreana from Germany after learning of his move there. But while he is pursuing a Nietzschean ideal, their aspirations stop at The Swiss Family Robinson. Friedrich helps them to establish a home and grudgingly delivers their baby but he finds
them insufferable. “We shall resolutely resist the establishment of any community,” he declares, his words spoken by an actor, over footage of him and Dore waving to camera. The film stock is scarred with imperfections, as though the celluloid were breaking out in boils.

Next to put down roots is Baroness Eloise Wehrborn von Wagner-Bousquet (everyone calls her simply “the baroness”, though they’re not sure if she really is one). She has two handsome young blades in tow and plans to establish a swanky hotel on the island. “We’ve hardly been here two months,” grumbles Papa Wittmer, “and already there are unwelcome neighbours living next door.” (And that’s before she washes her feet in his drinking water.)

Gossip trickles from the islanders’ letters home and into the German media, which run the story complete with bodice-ripping illustrations. There was already eccentricity, isolation and exoticism. The baroness adds the ingredients necessary for a potboiler: class, money, envy and desire.

From the start, the directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller alternate between stoking the sense of foreboding and snickering at it. Not that they don’t take the material seriously; they just know how easily it could lapse into outright campness. They get in there first with a squall of excitable violins on the soundtrack, or doom-laden fades-to-black after some pointed remark. The wealth of letters and journals, read by a strong cast that includes Diane Kruger and Connie Nielsen, provides an instant emotional charge. Why the directors bother to include latter-day interviews with the offspring of their subjects, wrenching us away from the action, is a mystery almost as great as the whodunnit at the film’s centre. Still, its heat and strangeness endure. When the baroness agrees to star in a silent swashbuckler filmed on Floreana, it is as though she knows they are all being swept up in a melodrama beyond their control, like swimmers stolen by the tide, and is signalling for help. She’s not acting, but drowning.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue