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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The Key (2015)


Bai Ling leads Nathan Keyes on.

Bai Ling leads Nathan Keyes on.

(2012) Romance (Self-Released) David Arquette, Bai Ling, Nathan Keyes, Nathalie Love, Brian Wasiak. Directed by Jefery Levy

What happens within a marriage can be a delicate thing. We assume that the private life is a mirror of the lives they project to the public, but behind the bedroom doors of any couple can be any one of a million things – joy, kinkiness, exquisite sorrow, tragedy and yes, even love but love expressed in ways that you and I can’t even begin to fathom.

The Nobel laureate Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki brought that onto the printed page with his 1955 novel The Key in which the husband deliberately leaves the key to the desk drawer where he keeps his diary within sight, almost daring his wife to turn the key and read the contents of his diary, which he has decided to make all about the sex life of the couple which has become rote and to him, insufferable. The couple has essentially ceased communicating with each other and this is the only way the husband knows to get his wife’s attention.

The husband, Jack, here is played by David Arquette, the wife Ida by Bai Ling and their home transplanted from Japan to Southern California. The structure of the film is that the two main characters read the contents of their journals while onscreen a series of images – some germane to the dialogue, some not – flash on the screen, generally oversaturated and scratched in order to approximate old movies which as it eventually turns out, they are somewhat like. One of the things I like about the movie is upon retrospect you realize that you are unstuck in time as you’re watching this; all of the events have already happened and you’re merely watching them unfold as in an old movie. I could be overthinking this, of course.

This is not a movie that is safe viewing. For one thing, sex is really a major part of the movie, or rather the obsession of sex. Ida is naked a lot of the time and she and Jack are often engaged in sex, not all of it consensual strictly speaking. Also in the cast is Kim (Keyes) whom Jack is trying to push into an affair with his wife, and Mia (Love), the couple’s adult daughter.

I’m all for movies that push the edge, but this one does so in a way that seems almost juvenile to my sensibilities. The readings of the journals is done in the breathless manner of 13-year-olds reading their father’s Letters to Penthouse out loud. In that sense, I suppose Levy might be doing that deliberately to give us a sense that the marriage between Jack and Ida has lost all its passion, but it goes on and on. The. Whole. Freaking. Movie.

A note about Bai Ling. She’s an actress who has always shown flashes of amazing potential but has never gotten a role that really allows her to achieve it. I keep hoping that each movie she’s in will be the one that really showcases her talents but she always seems destined to get roles that allow her to show that genius but never let it fly free. Here she is quite often touching in her various facets – Ida’s venality, her repressed sexuality, her regret – but the moments of genuine connection are abruptly severed by some absurd business that turns the movie into an hour and nineteen minutes of non-stop non-sequiturs.

Arquette is operating way outside the usual parameters that he is cast in and for that I tip my hat. He’s come a long way since the Scream franchise. This is definitely a more mature work for him, although again there’s that feeling that we should be titillated but instead we are tittering.

I haven’t read the book in 30 years so I’m a little bit rusty on the prose but to my ears it sounds like very little of it is Tanizaki. Perhaps the filmmakers are working off a different translation than the one I read, but this doesn’t sound like the way human beings write in their diaries about their sex lives. Perhaps I need to be reading more private journals but the prose is flowery here, and sometimes seems to use words for their own sake rather than to contribute to the viewers understanding of the story. There are some passages though that are dazzling, which is what I remember the book’s language to be, more simple but elegant.

The images are almost headache inducing, not unlike what you’d see projected on the walls of a nightclub circa 1995 and no, that’s not a good thing. After a short time it becomes almost annoying and I found myself looking down at my phone and reading e-mail while listening to the narration. That was something of a defense mechanism because my head was beginning to pound. Yes, some of the images here are beautiful and some out there but most of it is the visual equivalent of white noise, to be filtered out and ignored and is that really what you want in a visual medium?

Experimental cinema can be exhilarating, provocative or both. It can also be frustrating, pretentious or both. This is I suppose what passes for avant garde but either this is not the effect the filmmakers are going for or it’s way too avant for my garde.

Incidentally, the movie is on the festival circuit currently. If you’re interested, keep an eye out for it there. No word on a streaming release just yet but it’s likely to turn up in that format as well.

REASONS TO GO: Mind-blowing ending. Some fascinating images.
REASONS TO STAY: Holy pretentiousness Batman! Intrusive score. Takes too long to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of nudity and sex. Adult themes as well as some smoking and a fair amount of expletives.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Levy received a law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Deathgasm