What happens when seven misanthropic artists and intellectuals from Weimar Germany try to share a tiny, remote island in the Pacific?
Misery, mayhem, and murder.
So we learn from The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a dazzling documentary about an unsolved murder in an ad hoc community in the Galapagos islands in 1934.
Co-directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, The Galapagos Affair tells the surreal tale of two idealistic - if somewhat nutty - lovers who decided in 1929 to turn their backs on civilization and build a Rousseauian Eden on Floreana, a desolate chunk of volcanic rock inhabited by tortoises and lizards.
That preposterous plan was hatched by Nietzsche-worshipping physician Friedrich Ritter and his lover and former patient, multiple sclerosis sufferer Dore Strauch.
Ritter fancied himself a philosopher and planned to write his magnum opus. Strauch simply worshipped him and followed without question.
Luckily for the filmmakers, Stauch and Ritter were obsessive about recording their adventure. The Galapagos Affair includes extensive passages from their journals and letters and amazing footage from the apparently hundreds of feet of film the couple shot during their five years on Floreana. (It seems a little ironic that folks who loathed modernity would be such avid shutterbugs.)
Within months of their departure, Ritter and Strauch became celebrities whose exploits were printed in magazines worldwide.
Yet, their existence was anything but idyllic. Strauch had hoped for a life of contemplation, but found most of her time and energy went into the tedious daily task of survival - planting, cooking, keeping their hut clean and weather-proof, and, most important, stroking Ritter's ego.
They bristle when a like-minded couple move to the island, but learn to enjoy the company.
But Floreana becomes a tinderbox when a self-styled (read: fake) baroness named Eloise von Wagner arrives with two male lovers and announces her plans to build a hotel there.
Then one day, the baroness and one of her lovers disappear. Their bodies were never found.
A few months later, Ritter, who was increasingly abusive toward his mate, dies of food poisoning. Strauch claimed she ate the same dish, but with no ill effect.
Did she bump him off to escape a life of endless misery?
The Galapagos Affair develops these juicy mysteries with great intelligence, wit, and suspense.
If the film falters, it's because it tries to do too much.
Goldfine and Geller also include a fascinating decades-long chronicle of the brave souls who migrated from Europe to some of Galapagos' more hospitable islands, conducting extensive interviews with their descendants. That material might better be served by a second film.
The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden *** 1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller. With voice-overs by Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Connie Nielsen, Thomas Kretschmann. Distributed by Zeitgeist Films.
Running time: 2 hours, 6 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes, sexuality, profanity, smoking, some violence).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.