The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden


A family portrait of the Wittmers.

A family portrait of the Wittmers.

(2010) Documentary (Zeitgeist) Cate Blanchett (voice), Sebastian Koch (voice), Thomas Kretschmann (voice), Diane Kruger (voice), Connie Nielsen (voice), Josh Radnor (voice), Gustaf Skarsgärd,  Octavio Latorre, Fritz Hieber, Steve Divine, Teppy Angermeyer, Jacqueline De Roy, Gil De Roy, Jacob Lundh, Carmen Angermeyer, Daniel Fitter, Rolf Wittmer. Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller

Late in the film, one of the interview subjects proclaims “Paradise is not a place; it’s a condition.” However, in the 1930s, the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America must have seemed a paradise to Europeans who were already feeling the winds of war blowing. Full of tropical beauty and lush vegetation, it must have seemed an ideal place to get away from civilization and lead productive lives.

=Friedrich Ritter (Kretschmann) was a devoted follower of Nietzsche who had a devoted follower of his own in Dore Strauch (Blanchett). Scandalous even in Wiemar Germany, she left her husband and took up with Ritter; the two left Germany to make a life for themselves in the Galapagos, where Friedrich would be freed of the troubles and cares of civilization so he could write the philosophical treatise that he had been longing to (but had been unable to make time to) write. Of the islands, they settle on one called Floreana.

However, things don’t go the way he envisioned them. Strauch, who had multiple sclerosis, is unable to meet the physical demands of living on their own on a tropical island and Ritter, rather than being the understanding lover, seems to embrace the misogyny of his mentor and berates her constantly about her shortcomings.

Things don’t get any better when another German couple, Heinz Wittmer (Koch) and his pregnant wife Margret (Kruger) arrive having heard of Dr. Ritter’s experiment and decide to make their own homestead. The two families are somewhat antagonistic towards each other, Ritter and Strauch viewing them as interlopers while the Wittmers see the other couple as standoffish and arrogant.

However things go from bad to worse to terrible with the arrival of Baroness Eloise von Wagner (Nielsen) from Austria who is loud, brash and sexually forward for her time. She is accompanied by Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorentz whom she identifies as her architect and partner but are in fact her lovers. She has plans to build a luxury hotel on the island but seems somewhat cash-poor. She immediately locks horns with both families who are united in their distaste of her.

The tension on the island reaches a boiling point and real fear begins to grip some of the people on the island. Then, when someone disappears off of the face of the earth, suspicion points in every direction. Who done it? And who was it done to? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

This isn’t an episode of Murder, She Wrote; these events actually happened and it was something of an international scandal back in 1933. What sets this documentary apart from a recreation of events is that the filmmakers use home movies taken by the actual participants, and the words you hear spoken in the voiceovers are from the letters and journals of those who were there and witnessed it – including the victims.

That lends a distinct air of poignancy and a little bit of creepiness; we’re literally hearing voices from beyond the grave and seeing apparitions of those long dead. Particularly chilling is a short silent film made on the island starring the Baroness as a kind of pirate queen. John Garth (Radnor), a scientist on board a vessel that made regular mail stops at Floreana, helped film the one-reel film and his observations of the effect the Baroness had on the tranquility of the island is quite telling.

What doesn’t work is the plethora of modern day interviews – some of the descendents of those on Floreana including the son born to Margret Wittmer on the island who was in his 70s when interviewed as well as other residents of neighboring islands. Few of them give much more than analysis of the environment and observations of island life and quite frankly, their contributions are neither illuminating nor entertaining. The movie could have done without them.

But there are some interesting points. The ruins of the Hacienda and of the Baroness’ compound are chilling. The presence of the famous tortoises of the Galapagos not only ground the movie in location but make a nice allegory for the passing of time – some of the tortoises on the island were there when these events happened. That certainly gives one pause.

This really had a dynamite premise and all the ingredients to make a great documentary but that’s not what we got. Instead we got a movie that is a bit frustrating for we have this amazing footage, a great voice cast reading the words of the actual participants and then we break off to hear some inane commentary from someone who once had coffee with the son of someone who knew someone who was related to someone else. I would much rather this have been a much shorter film than padded out with unnecessary analysis.

WHY RENT THIS: What a fascinating subject!  Archival footage is priceless.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Modern-day talking head interviews offer more analysis than exposition and are of little value. .
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of the survivors of the events on the island wrote books on the subject which were contradictory but all were consulted by the filmmakers.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Footage of the filmmakers during their Q&A at the Telluride Film Festival.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $247,159 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ten Little Indians
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: They Will Have to Kill Us First

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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World


Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Russell Crowe wonders where the grog has gone off to.

(2003) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D’Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis, Billy Boyd, Jack Randall, Max Benitz, Lee Ingleby, Richard Pates, Robert Pugh, Richard McCabe, Ian Mercer, David Threlfall . Directed by Peter Weir

 

After years of fan clamoring, Patrick O’Brian’s revered Master and Commander saga finally made it to the big screen, and was given the royal treatment in Hollywood as befitted the beginning of a potential major franchise. It didn’t quite make it there but was that because the movie wasn’t up to snuff?

Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Crowe), master of the HMS Surprize, is given orders by the admiralty to track down the French warship Acheron in the waters off of the Americas and track it as far as Brazil, with the orders to take her if possible, and sink her if not. He commands a crew including the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin (Bettany), who is an amateur naturalist as well as Aubrey’s best friend. The two often end their evenings by playing duets on violin and cello.

The Acheron proves to be a superior ship in size, firepower and speed, and creates havoc for the Surprize, which barely escapes sinking in battle. Aubrey must use all his wits to outwit his clever adversary, but also wrestles with his own motivations; does he chase the Acheron out of loyalty, duty or pride? And what price will he pay to find the answer to that question?

The Master and Commander books are very well researched. The 20-novel series features detailed accounts of life in the British Navy in the Napoleonic era, as well as battle tactics, the political climate of the times and life in general at the dawn of the 19th century.

That a movie was to be made of it was met not only by the anticipation I mentioned but also a healthy amount of skepticism as well. Fans of the series (and they are a rabid lot) were concerned that the careful, meticulous research O’Brian put into the novels might be washed away in a storm of Hollywood clichés and shortcuts.

Well, there was reason to celebrate (and reason for dirges — more in a moment). Although Russell Crowe is perhaps too Hollywood-handsome for the role of Aubrey (he is described in the books as being a bit on the pudgy side and Crowe’s casting in the role made purists howl), he carries the charisma of a leader of men. His performance is such that you believe he is the kind of man you yourself would follow without hesitation to the gates of Hell and back. In that sense, he caught the essence of the character if not the physical embodiment.

The movie also captures the brutal and cramped conditions in which swabbies of the British Navy lived and worked. Better still, the raw courage it took to fight a naval battle is noted, as cannon fire obliterates hulls and decks, causing wood to splinter in a thousand directions, acting as lethal darts. Rarely are the cannonballs themselves seen by the naked eye, but the damage they inflict to vessel and flesh is well in evidence. The battle scenes are absolutely terrifying to behold.

The movie is well-cast even down to the extras who possess faces that have the look of the 19th century; most bear scars of battle, or the more insidious scars of years of toil on a tiny vessel in the midst of the unforgiving ocean, imperiled by both the elements and merciless foes. Whether those scars were put there by make-up or were there to begin with, they go a long way in establishing the film’s authenticity, which I have to say overall seemed pretty believable to my admittedly inexpert eye.

Aubrey is a decent sort but a stern taskmaster as captain; he knows the crew’s ability to perform amid hellish cannon fire and terrible storms will mean the difference between returning home or taking a long nap in Davey Jones’ locker. The discipline was by necessity brutal and if anything is understated here.

Weir filmed on the Galapagos Islands, one of the most remote and fascinating places on earth. It is where Charles Darwin was motivated to formulate his Theory of Evolution, and remains today, due to preservationist efforts, nearly pristine. The scenes with Maturin on the island are priceless and are among the movie’s highlights.

But there are a few marks against the film. In the novels, the American Navy was Aubrey’s adversary. Here, perhaps so that the American audience isn’t offended, Aubrey fights the French. Also, some of the expository scenes drag, leading to the audience shifting in its seats uncomfortably during the two and a half hour movie. Audiences are more ADHD than ever these days; I can’t imagine one sitting through this without whipping out cell phones to check for messages and texts at least once.

Crowe is in my opinion one of the most compelling stars in Hollywood; at this point in his career he’d hit his stride not only as an actor but as a screen presence, the very definition of stardom. The movie is much better when he’s onscreen than when he’s offscreen. Also, his chemistry with Paul Bettany as Maturin is undeniable; they bicker, but they are still the closest of friends, and the two play well off each other.

Weir walks a tightrope over a pool of hungry sharks just in making this movie and I think he does as good a job as it’s possible to do under the circumstances. The ship’s interior is made to feel cramped without making the audience too claustrophobic. The emptiness of the ocean and the isolation of the English vessel on it is noted but not overdone. And while he did compress some of the action, eliminate scenes and beloved novel characters, he makes the movie lively for most of the running time.

Master and Commander: Far Side of the World is an epic piece of filmmaking in every sense of the word. While the storyline may not be new, it is well-told. It is a combination action movie, adventure flick and history lesson all rolled into one neat package. Students of history will love this one, as much if not more so than lovers of action. It’s a shame that this franchise never made it past the first movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Epic battle sequences. Crowe at the top of his game. Combination action movie/adventure/history lesson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: About half an hour too long. Drags in places. Differs in critical places from the book.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the battle sequences are intense and gruesome. There are a few bad words now and then.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first movie ever to film in the Galapagos Islands.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The two-disc DVD Collector’s Edition has a wealth of features including a look at the historical accuracy of the books and the film’s endeavors to follow as closely as possible in accuracy, including getting authentic period props. This is oddly missing from the Blu-Ray edition, which does have a trivia track and a map overlay which shows you the positions of the Suprize and the Archeron at various points in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $212.0M on a $150M production budget; the movie wasn’t financially successful.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Horatio Hornblower, RN

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Expendables 2