There’s a legend on the South American Galapagos Islands that the famous tortoises that inhabit their shores have the power to stare into the souls of men. These enormous reptiles are said to judge each new arrival on their archipelago, and curse those that alight there with nefarious intent. The question is raised whether such a hex was placed upon a group of settlers in the 1930s, who are the subject of historical documentary, Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s handsome The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (2013). A real-life whodunnit provides a riveting narrative backbone but despite some juicy melodrama, this languid doc never quite lives up the intrigue of its central conundrum.
What Geller and Goldfine have at their disposal is an extraordinary wealth of diary entries and correspondence that allow them to craft a tangled web amongst the strange souls that made their home on the secluded Floreana. The first to decamp there were the eccentric Dr. Ritter who ran away to the Galapagos with another man’s wife, Dora Strauch. They craved the solitude that such a wild paradise would afford them, allowing Ritter to indulge in philosophy and implementing the ideas of Neitzsche in their everyday lives. Their isolation was denied them when others began to arrive on the island. Unbeknownst to Ritter, his letters home to Germany were published in the paper and Floreana soon became a coveted destination. Before long, people were going missing in a puzzle that’s still unsolved.
The Galapagos Affair takes pains to create a sense of this nascent – and strained – community including a self-styled Baroness who pitches up intending to build a holiday resort on the island. Archival photographs, footage, and maps provide the visual inspiration as a slew of stars (among them Cate Blanchett and Diane Kruger) read extracts from compellingly conflicted accounts. Tension is cleverly created through the knowledge of impending foul play, but never being entirely sure who will suffer some terrible fate. That tautness dissipates, however, thanks to the curious decision to interview the modern day locals. The dastardly acts occur in what constitutes the documentary’s third act, meaning that the opening two thirds are given over to scene setting to a large degree. Motives are spun and characters sketched, but one can’t help but feel that it aces far longer than your average locked-room investigation for the likes of Hercule Poirot.