Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
The Galapagos Affair: What the Tortoises Saw
halfway around the world, Germans had trouble playing nice during the early
1930’s. A small handful of German expats tried to establish new homes on
Floreana, an island in the Galapagos archipelago. What they lacked in numbers
they made up for with sheer prickliness. What exactly happened on Floreana
remains a mystery, but Dana Goldfine & Dan Geller document the rivalries
and resentments that presumably led to several premature ends in The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
of the Galapagos Islands have a long history of human tenancy, but Floreana was
not one of them. That was part of the appeal for Dr. Friedrich Ritter and Dore
Strauch. They were married, just not to each other. Ritter assumed the remote
and exotic locale would be the perfect place to openly cohabitate with his
mistress while he wrote his grand philosophical treatise (which sounds like it
would have been a warmed over synthesis of Nietsche’s Superman and Rousseau’s
Noble Savage). Much to their consternation though, they attracted unwanted press
attention as a modern day “Adam and Eve.” They also had to deal with unwanted
the Wittmers arrived hoping to build a new life as Twentieth Century
homesteaders. Ritter and Strauch found them insufferably middle class, but they
still stomached their presence as best they could. The Austrian Countess Eloise
von Wagner Bosquet was a different matter. Her high handed manner and plans to
develop a luxury hotel made her highly unpopular on Floreana, but the locals on
the neighboring islands appreciated her charms. Although not a radiant beauty
by contemporary standards, she had enough allure to simultaneously ensnare two
considerably younger lovers. In retrospect, this arrangement was probably
exact fate of the Countess and her preferred lover remain unknown, but it is
presumed they met with foul play. Initial suspicion quickly fell on the
remaining boy toy, especially given the speed with which he vacated Floreana.
However, the discovery of his desiccated body on a desolate islet years later
only raises more questions. In fact, death would return to Floreana after the
Countess’s disappearance, but the memoirs of Dore Strauch and Margaret Wittmer
paint very different pictures of the incident.
of like a Teutonic documentary analog of Michael Radford’s White Mischief, the scandalous drama of Brits behaving badly in
1940’s Kenya, Galapagos is fully
stocked with vague hints of infidelity and presumed murder. In this case, the persistent
mystery heightens the fascination with the case (or cases). By doc standards,
it is unusually cinematic, particularly through its in-characters readings of
the Floreana residents’ journals and letters by an all-star voice-over cast,
including Oscar winner Cate Blanchett as Strauch, Diane Kruger as Margaret
Wittmer, and The Lives of Others’ Sebastian
Koch as Heinz Wittmer. Goldfine and Geller also discovered and restored a
wealth of amateur film shot on Floreana, including a would-be feature film,
shot by the Countess and some of the local sailors, showcasing her as a
prospective adventure heroine—for real.
and Geller chronicle an intriguing story and provide a good deal of useful
historical context regarding the European expatriate experience on the
Galapagos. However, they never directly address the concurrent rise of National
Socialism in Germany (whereas Radford’s film pointedly contrasts the hedonism
of Happy Valley with the resolute sacrifice of Londoners during the Blitz).
Ironically, the Floreana expats would probably compare well against their
countrymen in this limited respect.
Still, Goldfine and Geller set the scene
remarkably well and even build a degree of suspense as they recreate alternate
versions of this murky business from some eighty years ago. Highly recommended
for fans of strange-but-true documentaries and historical mysteries like Heat of the Sun (British Kenya again), The Galapagos Affair opens this Friday
(4/4) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.
Labels: Documentary, Galapagos Islands