‘I was not uprooting my real self, but only an outward part of me that did not count,” Dore Strauch writes in her memoir, Satan Came to Eden. With that idea in mind, Strauch and her partner Friedrich Ritter left Germany in the summer of 1929 for a new and more spiritual life in the Galagapos.
You can tell from her title that the adventure didn’t end well. By the time Strauch sailed back home, alone, in 1934, Ritter and four others were dead, and Floreana Island was known around the world as the site of a sordid and violent mystery.
The Galapagos Affair tells the tale with a trove of 1930s footage from the island community that filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine found in a University of Southern California archive, and voice-over readings from what Strauch and others on Floreana wrote at the time and later.
These accounts differ at crucial points, but all agree that the remote refuge sought by Ritter and Strauch quickly turned into a snakepit of grievances.
The Galapagos was already a destination for northern Europeans fed up with civilization; Strauch was dismayed to find traces of an old tennis court where she set up house with Ritter.
Otherwise, neither seemed to be much interested in their surroundings, except as ground to be “tamed” and planted with seeds brought from Germany. They both admired Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and believed that a disciplined will could conquer anything, including Strauch’s multiple sclerosis.
Ritter’s letters home turned up in newspaper articles, prompting another German couple, Heinz and Margret Wittmer, to sail to Floreana, followed by an American research ship whose scientists wanted to observe these refugees from civilization.
“The Ritters resent competition in the hermit business,” one scientist wrote, after seeing discord between the couples.
Things got worse when a shady baroness arrived with a pair of male consorts, and told the hermit couples she planned to build a resort hotel in the middle of their idyll.
Eloise von Wagner primped for the camera like a silent-movie vamp, and actually became one in a lurid pirate film she made with oil magnate Allan Hancock, whose sailing crew of researchers also shot the footage lodged at USC.
The denouement plays like a remix of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with a chorus of unreliable narrators. Murders are apparently committed, although the slain are never found, and there’s no way to separate the guilty from the merely complicit.
There’s a hint that the hermits had also cheated on each other, although Strauch, for one, wrote that she was “offended and repelled” by sex. The film doesn’t get into the piquant detail, mentioned in her book, that, before leaving Germany, she tried hard to bring together the spouses that she and Ritter dumped, and apparently succeeded.
Geller and Goldfine keep the story taut and engaging, except when they get distracted by the current inhabitants of Floreana, who say mostly unsurprising things about living on a remote island. A few of them are Wittmer descendants who achieved the baroness’s dream of building a hotel, but even they have nothing much to add to a story they’re not old enough to remember. This two-hour film could easily have been 30 minutes shorter.
It could also have dug a little deeper into the austere German idealism that produces characters such as Ritter and Strauch. In her book, Strauch describes herself as a former socialist disillusioned by her experience of activism in Germany, who had decided that real change “can never come from the outside.” But to spark this inner development, she and Ritter paradoxically made the biggest change possible in their external existence. They sought total seclusion, she writes, because “it is the contact with unlike natures that destroys the inner harmony of lives.”
She was right about that, in their case at least. In the end, their hard and imperious natures could endure any hardship in search of illumination, except being thwarted by others.