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Directors Daniel Geller & Dayna Goldfine On Their Enthralling Documentary "The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden"

Interviews
by Carlos Aguilar
April 17, 2014 8:30 AM
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Inhospitable locations are prompt to be the source of legends and enigmatic theories. For most people the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, are only relevant due to their biodiversity made universally famous by none other than Darwin. His findings are studied by millions of children around the world as feasible proof of evolution. What they don't teach in school is the human history of this exuberant archipelago. One chapter in particular within this short, but surely captivating account of people settling there, is rather intriguing. As if pulled from the pages of a crime novel, what filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine found is a story that involves deceit, deviant romances, and possibly even murder.

Daniel Geller & Dayna Goldfine

In 1929, Freidrich Ritter, a German doctor and a fan of Nietzsche's ideology, decides to leave his wife and head for the islands, his only companion was Dore Strauch, a woman who was enticed by the idea of leaving civilized society for the emptiness of an untouched paradise. Soon after their arrival to the uninhabited Floreana island, the pair discovers life in the wilderness is a serious endeavor. With WW II lurking on the horizon, it wasn't long before other Germans decided to follow on their footsteps, thus when the Wittmer family arrived, Ritter's ideal solitude was disturbed. Still, it appears as if the two groups would manage to share the space, but when a third party settles in, an Austrian woman claiming to be a Baroness and her two lovers, conflict unravels leaving behind a trail of mysterious events - unsolved to this date. Such is the premise of Geller and Goldfine's documentary The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, which compiles archive footage, interviews, and narrations by the likes of Cate Blanchett , Sebastian Koch , and Diane Kruger This highly entertaining, darkly comedic, and well-crafted real-life melodrama tells a story almost impossible to believe. The directors shared with us the challenges and the huge undertaking that this project required, as well as their individual perceptions on such an incredible and, until now, hidden anecdote that adds to the allure the islands evoke.  

Aguilar: How did you get involved with this fascinating and insane project?

Dayna: We were asked by a friend way back in 1998 to do camera and sound work on a sort of Darwin-type science project down in the Galapagos. We went not knowing anything about the islands except that Darwin had used them for his experiments and they had lots of really cool animals on them. Certainly not knowing that anyone lived there, because there is actually no indigenous people on the islands. Anyone that’s there now has emigrated, or their parents have emigrated, from some other place. While we were down there on our little boat traveling from island to island, one night we picked a book off the tiny little library shelf in the boat, and it was about the human history of the islands. We were like “Wow there is enough human history to fill a book?”. Then, even more cool was chapter 3 or 4, which was called “Murder in Paradise.”

Aguilar: What a title

Dan: [Laughs] Dayna loves her true crime books, so from that moment on, the fixation began for the rest of our trip around the islands that time

Dayna: Basically at that moment I sort of grabbed this little chapter and I said “Dan you’ve got to read this, it’s just so wacky” Then our naturalist guide, who had lived in the islands forever and knows everyone, he said to us “Well guess what you guys, the old lady [Margret] is still alive” This was back in 1998, she didn’t die until 2000. At that moment I became obsessed, I was like “We are in the islands for two weeks, there is no way we can’t go to Floreana and meet this woman,” but what we didn’t know at that point was that the way it works in the Galapagos, you got this very specific itinerary that’s attached to each boat and our boat was not supposed to go to Floreana.

Dan: The project we were working on, the science foundation project that we were shooting, had very specific animals and variations of species that our friend Doug needed, and none of them were the ones particular to Floreana. That’s why it wasn’t on the itinerary, and you can’t bend the itinerary once you get going, unless your boat breaks down in front of the island, which is what happened [Laughs]

Dayna: Literally every morning we’d wake up and I’d say, “So today Doug we are going to Floreana right? We are gonna go meet Margret Wittmer”, and it got to be kind of a joke but I know we were pissing off our friend Doug who hired us. He would roll his eyes [Laughs]. Finally almost towards the very end of our two weeks, the boat literally broke down in front of Floreana. We had to get off, we even got to take showers on the island, and we got to have tea with Margret.

Aguilar: What did she say? Was she open to speak about what happened to the Baroness?

Freidrich Ritter and Dore Strauch

Dan: She was mostly talking about how president Roosevelt came to visit because there was an airbase built in Galapagos during World War II to protect the Panama Canal. She was proud of that and kept talking about it, and then would wander into some different topics. In a moment where there was just a little bit of quiet in the conversation we all looked around for a beat, that’s when she blurted out apropos of nothing “En la boca cerrada no entran moscas”.We saw Miguel Mosquera, who was our naturalist on that trip, and who became our location manager for all the subsequent trips for our film, and his eyes popped out wide. I said, “What did she say?” because at the time neither Dayna nor I spoke Spanish, we’ve subsequently started to learn. After we left, Dayna and I said “ Miguel what did she just say?” and he translated for us: “A closed mouth admits no flies.” We thought, “Oh my God, she is toying with the reputation and the legacy, and teasing people about it”. Whether she did that because it was just her way to antagonize people because she was sick of being asked or because she has a devilish sense of humor. I think it's the latter because certainly her son and daughter, Rolf and Floreanita, have very sly senses of humor, so I think they inherited it from her.

Dayna: I think she was sort of playing with the visitors that came to the island. By that point and time she was in her 90s and so many years had gone by. There is no way she would’ve talked about it explicitly, but I think she really did get a kick out of it. She knew that when a visitor came to the island, front and foremost in their mind was “OK what happened to the Baroness?” [Laughs]. Although no one would ask her about it at that point, I think it was her way of sort of joking around with us,

Aguilar: The search behind the film must have been extensive, how difficult was to find the footage and making a film out of a story hidden away for so long?

Dan: What happened is that, even though we were at that point fascinated with the story, there was no way to tell it without any kind of visual material. We were starting another movie called Ballets Russes, so we just thought “All right we’ll let it be for now” Then when the same friend Doug was starting a different science education project, he was working with a USC professor who also had brought his students down to Galapagos over the years. Of course because he was at USC, he happened to know of the archive in Doheny Library of all that footage. So our friend Doug, who we definitely owe a cocktail or two for this [Laughs], said “You guys have got to get down to USC and talked to this professor, Bill McComas, and see if you can get access because the archive is falling apart. There may be gold in there” We did, we started talking to the archivist, and then the university gave thumps up for us to take the footage with us and try to save it because they didn’t have the means to do it. We took that big risk, financially at least, and once we started seeing what was on those reels we thought “OK, now we’ve got something going, we got a way to tell the story” I think that’s one reason why the story hadn’t been told for all those years, because you need to see those people in that situation to believe it! This story is so crazy you’d say “No, no that could’ve never happened.”

Aguilar: It is very ironic that people that wanted to be left alone and be isolated had so much footage of themselves and pictures. It feels as if they wanted to be noticed. 

The Wittmers

Dayna: It was one of those weird unfathomable ironies. First of all, we did use a little bit of an “artistic light,” basically all the footage or 99% of it was actually shot by Captain Allan Hancock and his cameraman. What he did is, once he and his crew of scientists landed on the island in 1931 and discovered Friedrich and Dore, he started asking them to reenact their lives for the camera. We always sort of say “Who knows, maybe he was inspired by Nanook of the North", because Robert J. Flaherty went in and actually had his protagonist go through his life again. Hancock asked them to reenact what they were doing, and he took photos and filmed, it was actually shot originally on 35 mm nitrate, which doesn’t exist any longer. Luckily he made a bunch of 16mm safety prints which were what we found in the archive. Once they got to the island, Friedrich, Dore, the Wittmers, certainly the baroness and her lovers, they were all pretty proud of the fact that they had managed to create these lives in this very unfriendly terrain, and they were willing to show it off. The other irony is that not only did they pose for the cameras, but they all brought typewriters. In Friedrich Ritter’s case it made sense because he really did want to go into seclusion so he could write the great philosophical manifesto.

Dan: Part of it is, I think, that in those days everyone wrote letters, and I suppose the odds of a typewritten letter getting there across all the moisture in the oceans might have been better than one written with a pen.Margret ultimately wrote a memoir, Dore Strauch wrote a memoir, they also wrote letters, Ritter wrote articles for magazine and newspapers around the world, John Garth, the scientist on the Velero, kept his journal. We wound up with a wealth of first person expressions that could be used to form this script where the characters come to life through their own words in writing. In our case we put them in opposition to each other and it didn’t take much work because they all had their own point of view, and sometimes insinuated that the other one was responsible for what was going on down there. That became more or less a screenwriter adaptation job, not adapting one book, but adapting 2 books, 2 sets of journals, and who knows how many articles, and letters. Dayna and I, and our fellow writer Celeste Schaefer Snyder, bit by bit went through the murder mystery story and tried to give everyone voice, and also keep it kind of fun and suspenseful.

Aguilar: With all the sexual tension and intrigue, this could have easily been a narrative drama. As a documentary, how did you balance the interviews with current islanders, the first person narratives, the footage, and all the other different sources to create something cohesive? 

The Baroness and her tow lovers Phillipson and Lorenz

Dayna: It’s funny, Hollywood had been trying to make it as a fiction forever. The reason why it hasn't happened yet, although scripts have been flying around for over 20 years, is that it is such a complicated story, and there are so many characters. Each one is worthy of their own script, certainly they are all larger than life. That was really what took us the longest, I would say we worked with Bill Weber, our editor, for about two years. We went down so many dead ends, I can’t even tell you, we had so many work-in-progress screenings, scratch our heads, rewrote, re-cut, tried different balances of one character vs. another, or vs. the islanders perspective.

Dan: I think one thing that was important in setting each character onto the island was that we wanted to give them at least some moments where they could state clearly, and with real seriousness, why they were going and what their first impressions were like. Then that way, when things begin to verge toward the melodramatic or darkly humorous, there was already a foundation where you understood these people weren’t just cartoon characters. They had thought this through as much as they could and were trying to do something with a good spirit behind them. Even the Baroness, though her notions of the hotel or certainly her ability to fulfill the notion of the hotel was suspect from the beginning.

Aguilar: Even though you focus on this set of characters, the islands themselves have a mystifying personality and they appear to affect the people in them. Was this idea part of your creative process?

Dayna: Thank you so much, that’s exactly how we felt!. You are right when that woman tries to get away from the island it kind of sucks her back, in much the same way that Lorenz was sucked back and landed on Marchenta Isaland. In many ways the fact that the island had a drought, a really severe drought one of the worst in decades, we deeply believe it led to whatever happened to the Baroness and Phillipson. It’s funy, when were just starting to do the project, the series LOST was playing. LOST really did have the island as a character, and as we were watching the early episodes were chuckling and saying “It’s not so far from reality”

Dan: I wouldn’t have been surprised if we got into a backroom in a hotel and found the Dharma machine and someone was punching in the numbers every 90 minutes [Laughs]. Talking about the island reaching out, it turned out that Margery Simkin, who was our casting director on the movie, was in the Galapagos in 1986, her boat broke down, and she met Margret Wittmer in an unscheduled stop on Flroreana also. Maybe there is something about those islands, the fact that they’ve been uninhabited for so long, or that they are sitting over a volcanic hotspot. I don’t know what kind of lore you want to assign to it, but I agree with you, there is something weirdly mystical and prehistoric about the whole place.

Aguilar: Through their writing and the footage, both of you essentially met these characters, what are your thoughts on these characters who wanted to get away and begin again some place new? 

Dayan: They each had different reasons. One of the things that sort of drew me to the project on a philosophical and emotional level was that I’m not sure there is anyone who hasn’t had that, momentary at least, dream of forsaking everything and going off to live on some deserted island somewhere. Everyone has his or her own reasons for wanting to do that at any specific moment. What was so interesting is that each of those people or collective groups in the film, had their own very specific reasons for going. In a way, each had its own very specific notions of what paradise might look like. One of the things that we talked about between us since the beginning of the project is that the film is about what could happen if you do take that leap? You leave society and you go in pursuit of your own little deserted island, in search of paradise. But when you get there, someone else is already situated on that same island and their notion of paradise clashes explicitly with your notion of paradise. What do you do?

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