The events which took place on the Galapagos island of Floreana in the early 1930s have hovered at the edge of my awareness for some time now. The story has a number of elements I find irresistible, including failed utopias, phony aristocrats and low-latitude insanity, but apart from flicking through a library book by one of the protagonists (Dore Strauch’s Satan Came to Eden), I had never got round to exploring it further.
People, I had no idea.
Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s film The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden had its international premiere in Berlin yesterday, and so far did it surpass expectations that it was like a jeroboam of champagne proffered to a thirsty man. It also brought this astonishing story full circle. That’s because it all began in Berlin with the back-to-nature musings of physician and armchair Nietzschean Friedrich Ritter. Weary of the city, he left his wife and took off with a married woman (the aforementioned Strauch) to put his philosophy into practice. He need only have examined the earlier efforts of his compatriots, ur-hippy Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach or Nietzsche’s loony racist sister, to see how well that works out. But like them Ritter was driven by a tyrannical streak, largely indifferent to the feelings of others, reminding us that the distinction between utopianism and autocracy is often merely a question of scale.
In 1929 the unlikely Adam and Eve alighted on their improbable Eden, Floreana. The island was uninhabited and everything about the landscape insinuated that it would sooner stay that way; rocks, plants, animals – all of it dark and jagged and forbidding. The effort of gouging survival out of the begrudging ground left little time for pondering abstractions. Ritter, however, continued to write, sending letters home describing their new life.
Little did he know that his thoughts were being published in Germany; not in academic journals, but in newspapers, which played up the image of an eccentric pair conducting a bizarre lifestyle experiment. Among those inspired by the articles were Heinz and Margret Wittmer who, much to Ritter’s disgust, also settled on the island. After the initial shock, however, the foursome came to a tepid accommodation which might have endured for years.
One day in 1931 a boat appeared on the horizon bearing Baroness Eloise von Wagner (her title evidently as spurious as her claimed kinship with the composers Wagner and Liszt). She was accompanied by her lovers Robert Philippson and Rudolph Lorenz, although the latter was apparently something of a junior party to the ménage, alternately repelled and beguiled by the cruel baroness.
The trio set up camp on Floreana, uniting the two original couples in indignation, especially after Wagner announced her intention to build a luxury hotel on the island, which she seemed to regard as her private fiefdom. These developments, too, were relayed in illustrated newspaper and magazine articles, ever more lurid, the baroness more buxom in each retelling, but remarkably the sensational stories were not far from the truth.
These articles are complemented in the documentary by the frequently conflicting accounts of the protagonists, preserved in letters, books and diaries and voiced by a top-flight cast including Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger and Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others). There are lingering views of the hostile landscape and testimony from other European settlers in the Galapagos, some of whom came into contact with the Floreana septet. What really puts the film over the top, however, is the footage discovered by the filmmakers at the University of Southern California. It was taken by a scientific expedition which made annual trips to the Galapagos, largely to record the islands’ unique biodiversity but also drawn back time and again by the demonic soap opera playing out on Floreana. These expeditions were captained and bankrolled by Allan Hancock, a wealthy amateur of science who always travelled with his own chamber orchestra.
It’s impossible to overestimate the value of this extraordinary footage, almost as difficult to pick out a highlight. One scripted sequence – complete with intertitles – finds the baroness burlesquing her own infamy. Dressed in a see-through halter and gym shoes, she seduces a potential settler after they murder each other’s mates (the settler’s “wife” is a crew member of the expedition in drag). It’s an overripe pantomime of sexualised violence with a smack of early John Waters.
Wagner and Philippson were soon subject to very real violence – or so we must assume. They disappeared one day in 1934 after the baroness announced her intention to move on to Tahiti. But no-one saw them depart. There is a strong likelihood that they were murdered, but their bodies were never found and the testimonies of the five left behind are suspicious and often contradictory. Lorenz had even greater motive for dispatching the baroness than anyone else (either alone or in concert with one of the original quartet), but he soon left the island and met his own grim end shortly after.
Were all of this presented as the screenplay for a feature film, you can imagine an impatient script editor returning it bespattered in red ink. “A woman so starved of affection she dances with a mule? A boating expedition which sets out on Friday the 13th and disappears? A deathbed scene with the line ‘I curse you with my dying breath’? Give me a break.” But as always the truth is really, really out there.
Goldfine and Geller’s film is a beautifully crafted account of a truly incredible story, not one of its 120 minutes wasted, sustaining its telling ironies until the very last frame. It also has something very profound to say about civilization and its discontents, depicting as it does a Darwinian experiment infinitely more satisfying than reality TV (mental note: pitch a show called Nature or Nietzsche? to Endemol). Each of the protagonists embodies a different order of arrogance, but their shared hubris was to imagine that they did not carry within them the microbes of the society they left behind, as deeply embedded as original sin. As Ritter’s grand-nephew Fritz Hieber says: “wherever you go, you bring yourself”.
The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden opens in the US in April and – if there is any justice – will continue around the world.
(click here if you don’t see the trailer embedded below)