Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that Hell is other people. Several of the ill-fated subjects at the center of Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s riveting historical mystery documentary “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden” would have probably agreed with him.
In 1929, German doctor Friedrich Ritter and his mistress Dore Strauch, eccentric intellectuals inspired by Nietzsche, uproot themselves from Berlin and move to Floreana, a completely uninhabited island in the Galapagos. Their Eden of solitude and self-reliance quickly falls apart, as menacing problems in their relationship come to the fore. Then, more alarmingly for the two pioneers, neighbors arrive. First it’s the Wittmers, a family Friedrich and Dore find too bourgeois for their tastes, and then it’s a flamboyant Baroness, with a duo of kept men in tow, who plans to build a tourist hotel on the island. Paradise lost, indeed.
What follows plays out like a game of tropical “Clue” writ large. We know from the outset that some of these Floreana inhabitants will end up dead, perhaps murdered. And in such a confined setting, with only a handful of people, everyone has their reasons for wanting someone else bumped off.
Constructing a true-crime film where all of the first-hand subjects are long gone is a tricky thing. Yet Geller and Goldfine rise to the challenge, with a wealth of archival documents and first-rate voice actors reading the various writings by the Galapagos settlers. Quite the star-studded voice cast has been assembled: Cate Blanchett is marvelous as Dore, while Sebastien Koch (“The Lives of Others”) and Diane Kruger play the Wittmers. (The only disappointment here is Josh Radnor as an American researcher; he chews the scenery.)
Through arresting black-and-white photographs, sensational newspaper articles and even a pristinely preserved, truly bizarre home movie produced by the Baroness, Geller and Goldfine let us glimpse at what the fraught living situation on Floreana might have been like. They also interview a number of the Galapagos’ current civilians, many of whom are the direct descendants of those caught up in the scandal. One of these family members astutely observes that searching for Paradise is futile, because people can never get away from being themselves. Is Hell other people -- or is Hell inside of us all?
"The Galapagos Affair" screens at the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival. It hits theaters April 4, via Zeitgeist Films.