Disenchanted with civilization as he knew it, German doctor Friedrich Ritter decided to cut most ties with the modern world in 1929 and sail, with his wife Dore Strauch, to the remote and virtually uninhabited Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. The Nietzsche-obsessed Ritter had discovered his self-sustaining paradise he long sought, and his writings of his experiences drew the attention of a handful of people who came to live on the island of Floreana along with Ritter and Strauch; unfortunately, through the span of roughly five years, this small community became a microcosm of the very human nature Ritter looked to escape from in the first place, as friction between settlers resulted in a string of mysterious disappearances and deaths.
This little-known history forms the basis for the documentary The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, as well as a cultural study of the Galapagos integrated within the procedural exploration of the strange events that haunt Floreana Island. The material and resources are certainly substantial (a seemingly endless string of film clips and photographs of the Floreana settlers are presented), but filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine clumsily weave separate stories together without detailing anything beyond a tangential relation, which contributes to the film’s unfocused nature. The directors dwell slightly into the mystifying allure the Galapagos emits as a binding factor to connect each of the film’s many stories, and it’s no fault on Geller and Goldfine’s part for not lacking in ambition, yet it’s also this same ambition that exposes the film as an atonal, meandering patchwork wherein several documentary subjects fight for our attention.
Had Gellar and Goldfine focused exclusively on the ostensibly principal affair that gives the film its title, they might have produced a lean and effective murder mystery. The filmmakers flex their strength in creating slow-burn tension during these sequences, as Ritter and Strauch are joined on Floreana by the supposedly friendly Wittmer clan and the self-professed “Baroness” von Wagner Bosquet, a flamboyant “millionaire” wanting to build a hotel on the island. Ruminations on man’s nature set against various forms of civilization flourish through intriguing landscape/animal photography and diary entries of contradicting voices, despite occasionally being diluted by the slight dip into formulaic structuring. The film blurs the line as to where man’s propensity toward violence originates, either from natural evolution or instilled through their culture, which becomes a notion befitting a tale set at the very location where Darwin himself first gathered his revolutionary ideas. The doc percolates with a looming dread over its existentialism, but that feeling is never sustained when incidental and lengthy subplots routinely shatter the intrigue.