The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden comes with a hefty title that hints at the story’s central mystery: a potential murder rife with sexual intrigue and a complicated cast of suspects. In 1929, a doctor influenced by the anti-social aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy leaves Berlin with his lover and heads to the remote island of Floreana in the Galapagos, where no humans dwell, with the dream of escaping the tiresome aspects of civilization once and for all. The letters they send home are leaked to the press, however, and the couple becomes a bit of a news sensation. The presence of a doctor on the island seems promising to another German couple, who move to Floreana hoping to recreate Swiss Family Robinson for their children. The last transplants to Floreana are a Baroness and her two male companions. The Baroness wants to create a hotel for wealthy travelers called Hacienda Paradiso in hopes of turning Floreana into a sort of “Miami for American millionaires.” Personality clashes and an island drought lead to conflict, two inhabitants disappear, and the word “murder” is on everyone’s lips.
Directors: Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine
Producers: Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine, Celeste Schaefer Snyder
Writers: Dayna Goldfine, Daniel Geller, Celeste Schaefer Snyder
Cinematographer: Daniel Geller
Music: Laura Karpman
Editor: Bill Weber
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Sebastian Koch, Thomas Kretschmann, Diane Kruger, Connie Nielsen, Josh Radnor, Gustaf Skarsgård
Premiere: October 12, 2013 – Hamptons Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 4, 2014
US Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
There is a vast extent of archival footage featuring the movie’s central characters, and directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine craft an indelible impression through this footage—the documentary’s greatest strength, providing a portal for viewers to acquaint themselves with Floreana as it was at the time. A film within a film, the silent movies resurrect the central characters, insinuating their degrees of innocence through facial expressions and physical idiosyncrasies. The island’s inhabitants also left behind writings, and voiceovers in German-accented English attempt to convey a verisimilitude of these characters, yet they feel as unremarkable as the score with bits of violin or piano protruding here and there.
The film dissipates at times into the genealogical histories of families who lived on the Galapagos Islands during the “Affair.” Talking-head footage of the descendants of these families is included as well, as they speculate on situations they were mostly too young to remember. At two hours long, the film drags during these moments, all with tenuous explanations for the mystery that remains unresolved. The story becomes cluttered with superfluous names and perspectives. Occasionally the talking heads do provide useful information, however, like when the doctor’s grandnephew explicates the doctor’s philosophy. He alludes to Goethe in what could be the film’s epigraph, or perhaps epitaph: “You cannot leave civilization without being punished.” Surprises at the end of the film assert the importance of this question for all of the central characters.
Stock footage of the Galapagos is used like a refrain and veers into cliché: close-ups of Galapagos tortoises slowly blinking, an iguana opening its mouth in what appears to be a laugh, blue-footed boobies hopping around like a travel advertisement. The film’s most impressive shots were not filmed, only assembled by the directors from the candid archival footage. Near the end of the film, we witness some of this original material of the doctor’s mistress leaving Floreana. Things have not gone well for her, and she is visibly distraught. The words of the doctor’s grandnephew trickle down from earlier in the film: she has left civilization and she has been punished. The Galapagos Affair is not a particularly groundbreaking documentary, but it is rich with haunting images and full of philosophical questions.