Falling short of piecing together clues in ‘Galapagos Affair’

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Nestled in the far corner of the South Western hemisphere are the Galapagos Islands — a remote little archipelago made famous by Charles Darwin. It’s not the finches that interest documentary filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine however, and in their new film, “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,” they explore another notable, yet undoubtedly more obscure, event in the islands’ mysterious history.

It’s a true story worthy of Hitchcock, or at least M. Night Shyamalan, when the would-be island paradise for adventurous Walden-esque couple Dora Strauch and Friedrich Ritter becomes a hotbed of isolation, paranoia and madness in the 1930s. Ritter (voiced with excellent Germanic sternness by Thomas Kretschmann) is an egotistical philosopher who can never quite reach the fame he so adamantly thinks he deserves. Cate Blanchett voices the diary entries of Strauch, who is Ritter’s devoted follower. The lines between their mentor-student relationship is rooted in romantic naivete, and the lovers flee the civilized world to start their own private lifestyle on an uninhabited island in the Galapagos.

Their dream of an eternity in seclusion is shattered by the arrival of new inhabitants to the island — the Wittmer family. Also after their own slice of paradise, the Wittmers are eager to become upstanding neighbors to Strauch and Ritter and start a community on the island. Erupting onto the scene soon after is the self-proclaimed Baroness Von Wagner, an eccentric, fast-talking socialite straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Wagner and her two male comrades have big plans to turn the island into a high-class beachside resort, to the horror of everyone else.

After tensions on the island reach a boiling point, people start going missing, and murder is the only explanation, with only a short list of suspects. This twisted tale is told through the use of old home footage, photographs, animation and nature footage of the Galapagos Islands. This creates some rather creative storytelling and rightfully leaves just enough up to the audience’s imagination. Eerie mandolin plucking makes for an unsettling score that lingers throughout the film.

The voice actors bring these once-living characters to life through dramatic readings of their journals and letters. The whole documentary has a tantalizing dinner-theater feel to it, as the directors milked every minute detail surrounding the characters’ lives for as much impact as possible. By the end of the story, bodies have been found, people have fled and this tropical Eden is lost forever.

Where “The Galapagos Affair” falls short is in its pacing. While the film presents the mystery of the murders early on to hook the audience, most clues aren’t revisited in the narrative until much later. Geller and Goldfine concentrate their efforts on trying to build suspense and drama in the meantime, but due to the lack of actual visuals from the time leading to the incident, it feels more like a dramatic reading of someone’s travel diary.

It is interesting that a documentary was chosen as the platform for this story, as one could easily picture (with a little artificial plumping by Hollywood) this being a successful psychological thriller or drama. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden” to be a truthful account — a public record of one of the oddest unsolved murder cases to ever occur on the archipelago. Their commitment to the facts should be respected, but without much for them to use other than photos, graphics and some scattered interviews, their murder-mystery lags when it should be provoking the audience’s curiosity. Despite how the story is told, it is a film that proves that sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.

Ryan Koehn covers film. Contact him at [email protected].