In 1929, Dore Strauch left her husband in Germany to travel to Floreana with her lover, Dr. Friedrich Ritter. Floreana is one of the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. It remains a beautiful and varied and mysterious landscape to this dayon a visit in the spring you might see flamingoes, sea lions, frigate birds, and hatching sea turtles.
Influenced by Nietzsche, Dr. Ritter planned to write a great philosophical tract on Floreana and put into practice his ideals. However, when the international press dubbed him and Dore "the Adam and Eve of the Galapagos," others decided to follow suit. Dore and Friedrich's idealistic plans were ruined.
Among these other settlers or "Galapagueños" were Heinz and Margret Wittmer. Margret was pregnant. They hoped to be "the Swiss Family Robinson of the Galapagos." Austrian Baroness Eloise von Wagner Bosquet and an entourage of young lovers arrived next. The Baroness hoped to build a luxury hotel and declared herself the island's ruler. A few found her charming. Others, like Dore and Friedrich, found her vulgar and grandiose. She walked around with a pistol and a whip and is believed to have had a personality disorder. To give you an idea of her brand of unconventionality: one of her lovers Phillipson routinely beat her former favorite lover Lorenz.
The dreams of these different settlers clashed terribly, resulting in dramatic unsolved disappearances and murders. Given the inherent drama and mystery of this story, it is surprising that the Geller/Goldfine documentary is the first cinematic depiction of what happened on the islands back in the 1930s.
Geller and Goldfine started this documentary project in 1998, when they were hired to work on a National Science Foundation-funded project. They first learned of the lurid story of these earlier settlers from their boat's library, and subsequently met Margret Wittmer who was then still living. After returning home, they learned of a hidden archive at USC that held weird and wonderful 16 mm film footage from the 1930s, featuring the primary players. Over the years, Geller and Goldfine made five trips to the Galapagos and trips to Norway in order secure new footage for the film.
The whodunnit portion of the film is intriguing and well told. Many of the settlers and visitors left behind written observations, which Geller and Goldfine wove into a script. Voiceovers by well-known stars like Cate Blanchett and Josh Radnor narrate the first-person accounts. But the film is much more than a recounting of unsolved mysteries.
Other long-time settlers including Jacqueline, Tui and Gil De Roy; Teppy Angermeyer; Carmen Kubler; and Steve Divine were interviewed. Goldfine and Geller have displayed a remarkable talent for getting their subjects to open up and tell memorable, raw stories before and this film continues that practice. When I saw their documentary Something Ventured and interviewed them for the Palo Alto International Film Festival in 2011, I was particularly impressed with how they got and told the story of Sandy Lerner, the woman who co-founded Cisco and was subsequently let go.
What Goldfine and Geller captured of the De Roys' experience was equally affecting and authentic. Jacqueline De Roy left Belgium to come to the Galapagos with her husband and daughter more than half a century ago. In the film, she explains, "We wanted to be our own masters." She was still living on Santa Cruz Island when I visited her house as part of a tour in 2004. She put out feed for finches and they ate from our hands. Her daughter Tui is a self-taught naturalist whose photographs of the island are some of the most famous shots of the Islands.
At one point, De Roy says, "If there is a paradise, I hope it's nicer than this." I think anyone who has read about or been deeply moved by traveling in the Galapagos will find this a powerful, haunting statement. If De Roy doesn't feel like she is in a paradise, who does? As one of the other subjects points out, there is no paradise, no getting away from yourselfwherever you go, there you are. With The Galapagos Affair we are given a touching, complex and candid portrait of those that chose to settle in what is widely thought of as paradise, and what happened to their families as a result of that social experiment.
The closest movie theater showing The Galapagos Affair is Camera 3 in San Jose. Like the Islands themselves, this film is special. I recommend the 20-minute trek.