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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Galapagos Affair needlessly pads a fascinating historical mystery

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Located 575 miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, the Galápagos Islands are known primarily as the birthplace of Charles Darwin’s ideas about natural selection, which were inspired by his observations of the local fauna (notably its many distinct species of finches). Back in the early 1930s, however, a strange tale unfolded there—chronicled in several books over subsequent decades, but never, until now, in a film. Reportedly, a fictional version is still in development, but The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden tells the story using archival footage (of which there’s a surprising amount, given this happened well before home movies became commonplace), accounts written by the people involved (read in voiceover by actors), and interviews with contemporary descendants and historians. Unfortunately, while there’s enough fascinating material here for an hour-long documentary, this one runs two hours, with most of the present-day talking-head footage (interspersed throughout, to momentum-halting effect) feeling irrelevant.

The small island now called Floreana (known as Charles Island in Darwin’s day) was uninhabited in 1929 when a bohemian couple, Dore Strauch (voice of Cate Blanchett) and Friedrich Ritter (voice of Thomas Kretschmann), took up residence there, in an attempt to flee what they felt was the corrosive influence of modern society. They were dismayed when publicity regarding their adventure attracted another couple, Heinz and Margret Wittmer (voices of Sebastian Koch and Diane Kruger, respectively). Ritter, who had been a doctor on the mainland, was especially peeved that Margret expected him to help out with her pregnancy. Still, the foursome maintained a peaceful if strained coexistence until the arrival of an alleged baroness (voice of Connie Nielsen), accompanied by two boy toys. The baroness announced plans to build a luxury hotel on Floreana, catering to millionaires, and there were any number of possible suspects when she and one of her lovers mysteriously disappeared some time later—their fate still unknown today.

Both Dore Strauch and Margret Wittmer wound up writing books about their experiences on the island—the film’s subtitle, Satan Came To Eden, comes from Strauch’s book—and The Galapagos Affair works best when it sticks close to their frequently conflicting narratives, ably brought to life by the international cast (which also, somewhat jarringly, includes Josh Radnor as the voice of an American biologist). Somehow, there’s a great deal of silent-film footage of these folks, taken at the time of the events described, as well as a treasure trove of still photos, allowing directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine to keep things visually compelling. Apparently, though, they became attached to the locals who provided them with these materials, because half of the picture is squandered on interviews that amount to little more than speculation about the unknown, along with not terribly interesting observations about what it’s like to grow up on an archipelago far from most of civilization. Realistically, this should have been a short documentary made for television; as a feature film, it’s strayed from its proper ecological niche.