Dore Strauch and Freidrich Ritter standing at home - MS uncat
Dore Strauch and Freidrich Ritter in The Galapagos Affair, a gripping documentary about a remarkable story.

Remember that awful film version of the board game ‘Clue’ that came out in 1985? No? Despite featuring a solid cast (including Martin Mull as Colonel Mustard and Christopher Lloyd as Professor Plum!), Clue (the movie) really was pretty forgettable – but for some reason I couldn’t get it out of my mind while watching The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a gripping documentary about small-island intrigue opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 11.

We last visited the Galapagos Islands during teen sailor Laura Dekker’s brief stopover in Maidentrip. The Galapagos in this film, however, seem quite different: seen almost exclusively in black and white via thoroughly remarkable (and almost too good to be true) footage shot during the early 1930s, the islands project an aura of bleak, ominous majesty – hardly a welcoming rest spot for ambitious young sailors.

The end result of a 15-year odyssey traveled by co-directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, The Galapagos Affair relates the misadventures of a group of German free spirits and deep thinkers who fled their increasingly closed-minded and repressive homeland in favor of the total freedom offered by the remote Pacific. Leading the way was Friedrich Ritter, a World War I veteran and huge admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche who came to the unoccupied island of Floreana in late 1929, bringing with him his multiple sclerosis-stricken wife Dore and little else.

Embracing Nietzsche’s advice that to live is to suffer, the couple began to build a new life in Floreana’s harsh but lush wilderness. The nearest neighbors were sixteen miles distant, but the Ritter’s solitude was not to last long: with exaggerated tales of their Adam and Eve-like existence filling European and American newspapers, Friedrich and Dore soon found themselves joined by other expatriate Germans looking for a little peace and quiet.

First to make landfall in the summer of 1932 were the relatively innocuous Heinz and Margaret Wittmer and their sickly son Harry. The following year, however, saw the arrival of ‘Baroness’ Eloise von Wagner (in truth no noblewoman, in reality a professional dancer), her two male consorts, and their plans for the construction of a luxury hotel on Floreana – at which point relationships on the island stretched beyond the breaking point. Without giving too much away, residents began to disappear without a trace – and as with any game of ‘Clue’, there were (and are) multiple explanations and suspects involved in what remains to this day an unsolved crime (or crimes).

Inspired by the memoirs of Margaret Wittmer (who – spoiler! – lived until 2000), The Galapagos Affair would not have been possible without the against-all-odds survival of copious home-movie footage shot over the years by various visitors to Floreana. There’s even surviving remnants of a fictional pirate movie Baroness von Wagner and her lovers staged on the island. Though this film within a film is even worse than Clue, it allows Geller and Goldfine to flesh out their story – and make us wonder whether or not Dr. Ritter did it on the beach with the conch shell.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...