Trouble in Paradise
by Scott Foundas
Aug 30, 2013 | 5862 views | 0 0 comments | 474 474 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The baroness and friends
The baroness and friends
The Wittmers
The Wittmers
Floreana settlers
Floreana settlers
The “Galapagos Affair,” as it is commonly known, refers to two unexplained disappearances and a series of mysterious “accidental” deaths that occurred in 1934 on and around the tiny island of Floreana, in the Galapagos archipelago—a bizarre case made all the stranger by the fact that, only a few years earlier, Floreana lacked so much as a single human inhabitant. The first to arrive, in 1929, was Friedrich Ritter, a German doctor who fled the Fatherland with his mistress Dore, intent on living a neo-primitive existence far from the materialism and pettiness of conventional society.

And such might have been the case, were it not for another family, also German, who followed two years later. These were the Wittmers—father Heinz, mother Margret and son Harry, soon to be joined by a baby, Rolf, who would become the island’s first native-born resident. But the real trouble in this would-be paradise arrived in the form of the “Baroness” Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet, an outré specimen of uncertain origins and questionable repute, who might have been an aristocrat or a spy or, perhaps, just a two-bit actress who lucked into the greatest role of her career. Before long, everything the Ritters had sought to escape was flourishing on Floreana like some insidious weed—class warfare, jealousy, power struggles, even murder. They did not all live happily ever after

These events are the subject of a fascinating documentary, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, by the husband-and-wife team of Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine (Ballets Russes, 2005), who are drawn to sprawling epics and like to dig in deep.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: How did you first become aware of the “Galapagos Affair” and decide to make a film about it?

DAYNA GOLDFINE: Well, way back in 1998, a dear friend of ours hired us to do camera and sound work on his educational film project. Dan and I waltzed into the Galapagos not really knowing anything about it, but assuming—as I think a lot of people assume—that there weren’t any human inhabitants and that it was going to be all iguanas and tortoises. When we got down there, our tiny little ship’s library included a book about the human history of the islands. We opened it to the most intriguing-sounding chapter, which was called “Murder in Paradise,” and read the story. Then we discovered that Margret Wittmer was still alive—she died in 2000—so we spent the rest of those two weeks begging our director-producer friend to let us go to Floreana to meet her. He kept saying, “No, no, it’s not on our itinerary.” Then, lo and behold, our boat broke down in front of her island.

DANIEL GELLER: To this day, our friend has strong suspicions that Dayna caused that to happen. Somehow, she got into the engine compartment and pulled a spark plug or something. But we did get to meet Margret Wittmer. But what really propelled us into making the movie, which didn’t start until a couple of years later, was finding out that there was an archive of incredible vintage film footage of those people on Floreana—four or five years worth of footage—and that the archive was in danger of disintegrating. In fact, a lot of reels already had bitten the dust. We swooped in and asked if we could try to save the reels. When we saw what was on those reels, we thought it was the core of what could be a really interesting movie.

It seems like an incredibly tricky film to structure, with all of the contradicting, Rashomon-like versions of events.

GELLER: We knew early on that we wanted the characters to tell their own stories, and we were fortunate enough to have primary-source documents left by the people on Floreana that we used to create a script that, in some ways, feels like the characters are in dialogue with each other. But the question was, “How do we prevent the film from feeling too claustrophobic if it’s completely encapsulated in this black-and-white footage from the past?” What we also didn’t anticipate, when we first went down to do more research, was being introduced to people who were the descendants of the Wittmer family and other people living on the islands of Santa Cruz and Galapagos. Their stories were also fascinating and provided context while also opening up the visual and conceptual space of the movie.

GOLDFINE: Even once we realized those were going to be the elements, it was still a two-year editing process, and we made many wrong detours. The first question we had was how much foreshadowing to use. We spent a lot of time talking about foreshadowing and how Alfred Hitchcock and other mystery/thriller filmmakers use it or don’t. How much do you tell the audience about what’s going to happen? That took a lot of time to figure out.

Were the people of the Galapagos eager to participate in the film? Because one tends to think of such remote communities as being suspicious of outsiders, especially filmmakers!

GELLER: Some immediately opened up their doors. Others were more reticent and took some persuading. Understandably, they’d been through the mill before with film and TV crews. Once we explained ourselves and what we were really after, eventually everybody came around. Nobody that we wanted to interview ultimately said no.

GOLDFINE: Rolf and Floreanita Wittmer literally grew up with random tourists showing up on their island asking them what kind of stew their mother had cooked the Baroness in. So, these two people, who are now in their 70s, were over it. Fortunately Jorge Antonio, who’s the grandson of Rolf and appears in the film, believes deeply in capturing history. Once he got his mind around what Dan and I were trying to do, he provided the entrée to the whole Wittmer clan. He brought us to the island and made the introductions. That really eased the way.

The film references Adam and Eve, Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, but reality ended up closer to Lord of the Flies. Are those who try to escape the problems of civilization doomed to replicate them?

GELLER: I don’t think the enterprise itself was doomed to failure, but I do think that if you put people together whose conceptions of life on an island are so radically different, and put them more or less cheek-by-jowl and with a scarcity of resources, that probably is doomed to failure.

GOLDFINE: They didn’t set out to form a community, and that was probably the biggest reason it became so disastrous. They each were trying to live this idealistic version of whatever mythology they had adopted. Of course they were going to clash. As a unit, the Wittmers hung together and cooperated in a way that allowed them to survive. The others just tore at each other. One of the minor characters in the film says island life is just a microcosm of what happens in the greater society.

Will we ever find out what really happened on Floreana, or did Margret Wittmer take that secret to the grave?

GELLER: You never know what little bit of evidence might turn up on that island, but no firsthand adult eyewitness remains, so it would have to be a forensic investigation. But some of the fun of it—I don’t know if “fun” is exactly the right word—but some of the intrigue is not knowing.

GOLDFINE: When we started this project, I really did hope to solve it, whatever that would mean. As it went on, I ultimately decided that, sometimes, when things are solved they become less interesting. Maybe it’s better to leave it as an enigma and let the audience discuss it among themselves as they walk out of the theater.


U.S., 2013, 126m | Writer/directors: Daniel Geller,  Dayna Goldfine


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