Saturday, May 10, 2014

NEW REVIEW: The Galapagos Affair

(sort of...if you are seeing the film, you probably have some knowledge of the story)

Of the six adults living on the remote island of Floreana in the early 1930s, only three survived and only two remained on the island for the rest of their lives.
Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.

I spent the morning with rumblings in my head, trying to resolve for myself what really happened to the peculiar inhabitants of Floreana. 

In 1929, Dr. Friedrich Ritter, a follower of Nietzsche, abandoned his life (and wife) in Germany and traveled with one of his patients, Dora, to the Galapagos, with the intention of leaving civilization behind and living a solitary, self-sufficient existence. (Oddly, it was not clear what their relationship was exactly, only that Dora thought him a genius and was apparently sucked-in to the doctor's belief system.)

Much to the pair's annoyance, two years later, Heinz Wittmer decided to move with his pregnant wife, Margaret, and son to the island. Later still, to the great chagrin of both parties, a third and most unusual trio moved in: The (supposed) Viennese Baroness and her two lovers, Robert Philippson and Rudolph Lorenz.

No one got along well on the island, and the flamboyant and entitled Baroness was apparently particularly disliked, but things seemed to take a turn for the worse when in 1934 a drought left the islanders with limited water and food supplies.

Mysteriously, Baroness and Philippson disappeared, Lorenz desperately caught the next boat off the island and was later found dead on another island, and Dr. Ritter died the same year of supposed food poisoning.

Mick LaSalle of the SF Chronicle loved this documentary. However, Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News wrote:

How anyone could make such an uninvolving movie out of such a fascinating subject remains its own inexplicable mystery.

I do think the documentary came across as surprisingly pedestrian given the bizarre, and even titillating, subject matter. That said, the film was still quite intriguing. I anticipated photos and interviews, but the fact that they actually had small film clips of these people made it fascinating. At one point, the Baroness and a visiting sea captain made a silly little silent film with her starring as the island Piratess. That the film is preserved strikes me as remarkable. 

Although a bit confusing as the documentary wove in interviews and stories of people who grew-up on nearby Santa Cruz, it was genuinely quite interesting to hear about their lives. But the bottom line, of course, is what really happened?

My brain rumblings have led me to the conclusion that Margaret, Heinz, and Lorenz were all involved in the disappearance of the Baroness and Philippson:

1. Margaret's story that the couple took off for Tahiti with friends made no sense whatsoever. The Baroness did not seem the type to leave all her belongings, and no one was aware of any boat coming to the island. Why would Margaret make up a tale like that except to cover her (and her husband's) tracks?
2. I think Lorenz was so anxious to get off the island because he was afraid and distraught.
3. The Wittmers stayed on the island, raised their children and built a hotel. Their daughter still runs the hotel.
     Very strange. They weren't afraid at all. Sounds mighty suspicious.
4. Margaret wrote a book about her experiences during that time, but subsequently refused to speak another word about it though she lived to her nineties. I think they justified their actions to themselves at the time and later just wanted to bury it and forget.

Who knows, maybe the Wittmers even sabotaged the boat that Lorenz was leaving on, thinking that he, who seemed mentally unstable by this time, would spill the beans and send the authorities?

And Dr. Ritter? I'm perplexed. Maybe it was truly accidental food poisoning, but maybe Dora became afraid that they would be next to disappear, argued with Dr Ritter, who wouldn't agree to leave, and decided to ensure that he got sick, perhaps thinking that would change his mind.

One thing I know for sure: Dead men tell no tales.

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