Q&A: Dan Geller & Dayna Goldfine on ‘The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden’

Darwin meets Hitchcock in this gripping true murder-mystery about European ex-pats in the 1930s searching for utopia on an uninhabited island in the Galapagos. The beautiful yet brutal landscape of Floreana serves as a perfect background for the drama surrounding Dr. Fredrich Ritter and his lover Dore Strauch. Too soon their lives are invaded by the Wittmer family and the Baroness with her two young lovers. When you’re on an island, there are no good fences to make good neighbors. Featuring rare archival footage not seen in 70 years, and with voice performances by Cate Blanchett and Diane Kruger, The Galapagos Affair weaves “a human history” with modern-day interviews, spinning an adventurous tale of idealistic dreams gone awry.


Please describe your film in your own words.

Dan Geller & Dayna Goldfine: The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden is both a murder-mystery documentary, with aspects of Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, and an exploration of humanity’s perennial search for paradise. Set in the brutal yet alluring landscape of the Galapagos Islands, it interweaves an unsolved “who-dunnit” from the 1930s with stories of present-day Galapagos pioneers who settled idiosyncratically on the Islands between the 1930s and 1960s.

The Galapagos Affair unspools Rashomon-style with a stellar cast giving voice to the writings of the protagonists from the 1930s mystery. By turns macabre, humorous, inspiring and profound, The Galapagos Affair is a murder mystery, but it’s also an adventure story of the sort that make Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson so timeless.

What inspired you to tell this particular story?

DG/DG: In the summer of 1998, we were hired by a friend of ours as cinematographer and sound recordist for a National Science Foundation-funded project in the Galapagos Islands. Little did we know that a two-week shoot-for-hire would result in a deep passion for a place and a story, a passion that would take us on a 15-year journey resulting in The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden.

At the time, we had no idea that people lived in the Galapagos. Like most travelers going there for the first time, we believed that the Islands’ only inhabitants were exotic species of tortoises, birds and iguanas, and that their history consisted entirely of scientific exploration related to Darwin and his followers. It was a wonderful surprise then, when early in this shoot, we pulled a book called The Enchanted Islands:  The Galapagos Discovered out of our boat’s one-shelf “library” and began reading with growing excitement about the Islands’ little-known human history. One chapter in particular captured our attention. It was called “Murder in Paradise,” and its scant twelve pages introduced us to Dr. Friedrich Ritter, his companion Dore Strauch, the Wittmer family, the Baroness, her lovers and the mysterious events that took place on Floreana Island in the early 1930s.

We became obsessed with the Floreana story and knew immediately that there was a great film inherent in it, but we were stymied about how this story could be told in a documentary given the absence of living protagonists. So we left the Galapagos and continued to mull over this fabulous yarn as we began instead to work on Ballets Russes (2005). Then, years later, as we were finishing that film, the friend who’d taken us to the Galapagos in 1998 called with some extremely exciting news.  He’d heard about a hidden archive at USC, which had been donated decades earlier by Allan Hancock, a wealthy Southern California industrialist. Rumor had it that this archive contained 16mm film footage from the 1930s featuring all of the protagonists in the Floreana mystery.

We checked it out and were thrilled to discover that, although fragile and in various stages of disintegration, the footage did exist. There in front of us were Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch building their homestead on Floreana, the Wittmers up in the highlands in the old pirate caves, and the Baroness vamping with Philippson, her favored lover. The images offered up an incredibly privileged view into the long-vanished people and events that had filled our imaginations for so many years. With great excitement, we realized we could finally tell this story as a documentary.


As filmmakers, what attracted you to this story?

DG/DG: As filmmakers, we were initially drawn in by the unsolved mystery—Dayna in particular has a sweet tooth for true crime stories. But we were also captivated by the more philosophical aspects of the story. Over and over again, we read about people who were searching for their own version of paradise, and this search felt like a universal one.

In addition, we were intrigued by the notion of personal mythmaking as evidenced by the various protagonists in the Floreana story: you have Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch, who self-identified as “the Adam and Eve of the Galapagos”; and then there were the Wittmers, who very much felt that they were living a “Swiss Family Robinson” existence. And then, of course, you have the Baroness, who embodied a complex package of femme fatale, swashbuckling piratess, free-love Utopian goddess and would-be proprietor of a luxury hotel. Oh yes, and the chance to return again and again to the always alluring Galapagos Islands certainly was part of the equation.

In the film, Cate Blanchett and Diane Kruger read the diaries of two of the women on the island. How were you able to attract them to the story?

DG/DG: We were putting the finishing touches on the murder mystery script when Cate Blanchett came to San Francisco to film Blue Jasmine with Woody Allen. A mutual friend introduced us, and on a break from filming, Cate was kind enough to come up to our house and watch a cut of The Galapagos Affair. We were completely simpatico with her take on our film, and especially by the way she perceived the many layers of the character of Dore Strauch. Having seen Cate in The Good German, we knew she was more than capable of delivering a knockout performance with a German accent, and so when she generously agreed to voice the role, we knew we could truly bring Dore to life.

With Cate on board, our executive producer Jonathan Dana introduced us to casting director Margery Simkin, who brought to us the rest of the amazing cast: Diane Kruger as Margret Wittmer, Sebastian Koch as Margret’s husband Heinz, and a truly dark and menacing Thomas Kretschmann as Friedrich Ritter. Margery also brought on board the fabulous Connie Nielsen as the Baroness, Josh Radnor as the young American scientist John Garth, and Gustaf Skarsgård as the Swedish journalist Rolf Blomberg.


What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

DG/DG: We would like audiences to get caught up in the Floreana murder mystery aspect of the film, so that they leave the theater debating who did what to whom.  But in addition, we’re hoping that people are left pondering some of the more philosophical issues that are raised: what is paradise and what does it mean to search for it? Is it a state of mind or an actual place? What kinds of myths do we tell ourselves about ourselves?

Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

DG/DG: Try as much as possible to enjoy the process of making your film. Every project has incredible highs and lows, but if you’ve chosen the right one, you’ll find yourself engaged and rewarded from beginning to end on many levels. We, like the vast majority of documentary filmmakers, have accepted the fact that it’s not an occupation that leads to rich monetary compensation, so it’s important to feel rewarded experientially. That’s what keeps us going.

What are you most looking forward to at the 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival?

DG/DG: This will be our third time at the Hamptons (our first was with Now and Then: From Frost to Seniors, in 1999; the second was with Ballets Russes in 2005), and we’re very much looking forward to coming back. We’re eager to catch as many of the other films as possible and to have the opportunity to watch The Galapagos Affair on the big screen with an audience for the first time.

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden screens in the World Cinema program at HIFF 2013. Tickets | Facebook | Twitter | Website

Geller-Goldfine-headshotFor over twenty years, Emmy-award winning directors/producers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine have jointly created critically-acclaimed, multi-character documentary narratives that braid their characters’ individual personal stories to form a larger portrait of the human experience. Their work includes the award-winning Something Ventured (2011), which premiered at SXSW, went on to play at festivals internationally, and was broadcast nationwide on PBS; Ballets Russes (2005) which was recognized as one of the top five documentaries of 2005 by both the National Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review and appeared on a dozen critical “10 Best Films” lists, including those of Time Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, the San Francisco Chronicle and Slate; Now And Then: From Frosh To Seniors, which premiered theatrically in October 1999 and aired on PBS in October 2000 as the lead program of the Independent Lens series; Kids Of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins + K.O.S. (1996), a feature-length documentary about the South Bronx-based art group Tim Rollins & K.O.S., which aired on Cinemax in September 1998 and was the recipient of two national Emmy Awards; Frosh: Nine Months In A Freshman Dorm (1994); and, the award-winning Isadora Duncan: Movement From the Soul (1988).