Galapagos Hits the Big Screen

A famous centre of interest for natural scientists, holiday makers, marine biologists and explorers, 2014 sees Galapagos as the focus of something a little more Hollywood.  Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine are the Emmy award winning film makers whose latest work The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado this August.

It tells the bemusing murder mystery of a group of European settlers on the island of Floreana in the 1930’s, interwoven with “stories of present day Galapagos pioneers” as well as HD footage of Floreana’s stunning landscapes.  This true story sees the restraints of modern day society released as each of the pioneers fight for their own visions of Eden.  However, paradise takes an ugly turn and soon a new and more sinister level of mystery begins to envelope the already enchanted islands. 

The first of the group to arrive on Floreana was German dentist come philosopher Fredrich Ritter who eloped with his patient Dore Strauch (pictured below).  Both left spouses and set off for a tropical existence away from the trials of modern civilization, striving to be a present day Adam and Eve in their very own Eden.  They moved lava rocks to create their home, raised chickens and planted a vegetable garden – the beginnings of escapist bliss, and the promise they sought in the midst of the German Depression.  The couple’s adventure captivated the international press, and Ritter became somewhat of a celebrity, enticing others to follow in their steps.

Dore Strauch and Freidrich Ritter standing at home - MS uncat

Next to arrive was Heinz Wittmer, his pregnant wife Margaret and their teenage son, also seeking their own version of paradise.  Although the two families were friends, they were reported to have kept their distance from one another, with the Ritters far less welcoming than the Wittmers might have hoped.

Perhaps the most intriguing member of the group was the next to follow.  The so called ‘Baroness’ by the name of Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet, who set up camp with her two lovers; Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorenz (pictured below).  Austrian-born Baroness Eloise later gave herself the title ‘Empress of Galapagos’, posing with a gun and whip for articles in Time magazine – she was less an escapist and more an exhibitionist than the others. Indeed, Fredrich and Dore described that ‘her appearance and her manner were contrived for maximum effect’.  She named her spot of Eden ‘Hacienda Paradiso’ and had the intention of building a hotel for millionaires.

Such hopes were never to be fulfilled. The Empress went missing, having told Ritter that a friend’s yacht was taking her and Philippson to Tahiti.  With no sighting of any boat or recorded arrival in Tahiti, the couple have not been seen since.

Baroness, Philippson, Lorenz pose together uncat

Curiously, this was only the beginning of the mysterious occurrences.  Before the Empress’ departure her love triangle had turned sour and Lorenz had been demoted to the role of a slave. As such, Lorenz became the primary murder suspect amongst the community and was in a hurry to leave the archipelago.  He thought he had made a lucky escape after persuading a Norwegian fisherman to take him to San Cristobal however he was not so fortunate.  Months later the bodies of both Lorenz and the fisherman were found mummified on northerly Marhena Island.

The concluding strand to this increasingly bewildering tale is the subsequent death of the original settler, Dr Ritter.  A supposed vegetarian, he was found dead after being poisoned with bad chicken, allegedly by his lover Strauch.

There was never any more evidence to help solve these puzzling goings-on.  It is suspected that Margaret Wittmer, the longest living of the group, held secrets about the ‘Galapagos Affair’, but she remained true to this story until her death in 2000, even after publishing her book ‘Floreana’.

Whilst it might sound rather like a version of Cluedo in the tropics, the film makers of this retelling strive to “braid their characters’ individual personal stories to form a larger portrait of the human existence”. With what has captivated the Telluride film festival as a documentary to watch out for, this patchwork of vintage home videos, the hearsay of modern day descendants and new images of the Galapagos natural wonders, there is something for everyone, and we wait with great anticipation!  It is set to hit theatres in LA and New York in Spring 2014, with national (and hopefully international) release later in the year.

by Lottie Webb

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