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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. 

Beast of Eden: Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter set up camp in the Galapagos Islands in 1929
Beast of Eden: Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter set up camp in the Galapagos Islands in 1929

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.