Filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine on the murder mystery at the heart of their documentary The Galápagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden.
Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s documentary The Galápagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden tells the almost scarcely believable story of a group of German settlers to the then inhabited Floreana Island in the Galápagos Islands in the 1930s. The tensions between the initial settlers—some were Nietzsche loving, some were vainglorious, some just wanted to be alone—led to murder. Or did it? Geller and Goldine’s teasing film examines the various viewpoints through preserved film and diaries, all the while having the benefit of killer metaphors (Darwin, interwar Germany, Eden). The documentary also expands the focus to consider the Islands’ current inhabitants, an approach which stymies the narrative flow somewhat, but also adds resonance to the murder mystery at the film’s heart.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: I always start with a general question—why film?
DAN GELLER: My Dad was a public school teacher and eventually had a career as a producer much later. He brought some media tools into the classroom. There weren’t many people doing that in the early to mid 1960s. It meant the school district I grew up in had a lot of film equipment, so I had access to it and it seemed fun to make silly short films. Just stop motion animation, anything. But then I stopped along the way and did science, and the long and short of it, I didn’t think about going back to film until well into my senior year in college. I kept a still camera in my bag. At one point I was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and was trying to take a photograph of this one long hedge with these beautiful pink flowers. I kept repositioning and repositioning and I couldn’t capture the essence or totality of it. I realised in essence I was making my own dolly shot and then it all snapped, just like that. I want to make films and this is what I now do.
BG: And why documentary?
DGE: I could start making films on my own, right away, without having to raise millions of dollars. I’m not a fiction screenwriter and I’m not a fantastic original visual stylist. Also, you can tap into a lot of intelligent subjects in the documentary with much greater depth and intelligence than is typically allowed in a fiction film. I was impatient. I didn’t want to be an apprentice for ten years. All of those reasons.
DAYNA GOLDFINE: It’s such a broad question. I always wanted to do something in the arts. When I graduated from college, I thought briefly about applying for a writer’s programme. I wasn’t brave enough to do it. It felt, “How would I make a living being a poet,” which is what I wanted to be. So I actually graduated from school and started working. When I met Dan, I had just started my first real ‘job job’, for a financial consultant, and I was bored instantly. I wanted to do something in the arts. Dan was editing films and making documentaries. I mustered up the courage and said to Dan, not too long into dating, “I think I want to do what you do.” His response really wasn’t that nice at the time, but it was a great response: “You’ve got to go to school and do it on your own because I don’t always want to be your mentor. I don’t want to be your mentor at all.” As hard as that was to hear, it was a great gift. I started going to college and about a year in, after making a couple of 8mm films and a 16mm film, we got this letter out of the blue from a friend who was studying in Paris, who wrote, “Have you ever considered making a film about Isadora Duncan? [which became Isadora Duncan: Movement from the Soul (1989)] You should really do it. I have this landlord who is one of the last of the third generation of dancers trained by Isadora Duncan.” We wrote back right away thinking, “why not,” not thinking it would ever happen. And then two weeks later we got this letter back from Paris from this 68 year old woman we’d never met saying, “How lovely. I’m going to be there in February.” And it was just before we got married in May.
BG: How do you divide up the roles?
DGE: I shoot and Dayna does sound. I’m shooting obscured by the camera, and Dayna, who’s good at it, does the primary interviewing. That’s the main difference. Other than that, we conceptualise the process, write, and produce together. We direct and work with outside editors, and we edit with them. Dayna spends more time online researching to dig up materials, and I spend more time trying to turn computers online.
DGO: Unlike here, where there’s actually a New Zealand Film Commission, in the U.S. it’s harder. As a means of survival as a filmmaker you have to learn to do a lot. Initially we even overlapped on the film. In our first film, we scraped enough money to hire a crew. Subsequently, our next couple of films, both of us shot and both of us did sound as we were basically shooting for nine months. It would have been too much for either of us to hump the camera around for 12 hour days for nine months. We just evolved this way of working where we overlap. No one’s going to go out and raise money for us so we have to be producers. For the first several films, we didn’t have the money to hire an editor and we learned how to cut and now when we can, we do bring on editors. Bill Weber is a fantastic editor we had for Galápagos.
BG: Obviously the Floreana story is a crazy story. When did you first hear about it? I understand you were helping a friend’s scientific expedition in 1998?
DGE: Our friend Doug had gotten a National Science Foundation Grant to make an interactive curriculum on evolution and natural selection for middle students. The project turned out to be fantastically original, difficult to implement at the time technically. Part of what he wanted to incorporate was movie clips of the animals so people could observe the behaviour and make some decisions about adaptive traits and so on. He brought us down. Normally we don’t hire ourselves out for other people to do cinematography. We have our own production company doing corporate media. But when one of our friends says, “I have money, and I can take you to the Galápagos…”
DGO: We get paid to spend two weeks on the islands, on a small boat with six people—it’s fantastic! We really went there as novices, only knowing about these islands as research laboratories for Darwin and assuming no one ever lived there. It was this great shock, on the second or third night on the boat, we lifted this book off the shelf.
DGE: Dayna likes true crime, and in the book there was a true crime chapter.
DGO: There was a 12 page chapter called “Murder in Paradise.” I read it and then we spent the rest of the two weeks on the boat debating and talking about it. It’s such a fabulous story and each character is more outrageous than the last. It’s preposterous. You can’t believe that it really happened but it did. As we started debating it on the boat, the naturalist, our guide, said, “I know the old lady. She’s still alive.” We were like, “Who’s the old lady?” “Margret Wittmer. She’s still alive.” So that moment became the beginning of this quest so we could land on the island to meet Margret Wittmer. It’s very strict when you’re in the Galápagos. You’ve got a very specific itinerary. It’s assigned to your boat. We were not meant to go to Floreana. Our friend who hired us was very annoyed with me because for ten days, literally in the morning, I’d say, “Today’s the day, isn’t it Doug?” It got to be a joke but he was also annoyed. Lo and behold, I think I did channel it, or he thinks I channelled it, but the boat broke down, and where did it break down? Outside Floreana. We had to use the shower at the Hotel Wittmer, and we were lucky to have tea with Margret. Miguel the naturalist said at the time, “Listen Dayna, I know you are very keen to ask her about the disappearances, but if you do, I’m going to have to kill you. She’s an old lady. Don’t bother her.” The entire time we were with her—I know I was, and I’m sure Dan was too—we letting her talk, and she chose to talk about the famous people who visited the island. At the very, very end she says this one line,
BG: “A closed mouth admits no flies?”
DGO: At the time neither of us even spoke Spanish. We knew it was important by the way she said it, and I turned to Miguel and he said, “I’ll tell you later.”
BG: That happened in 1998? So obviously you had other projects that came up in the middle. What was the impetus to go back?
DGE: Doug was starting a different project, a science and education project. We started by working with a professor from the University of Southern California named Bill McComas. Bill had student trips to the Galápagos. He knew Doug had done this particular project and mentioned the [original 1930s] footage. It was in an unknown state of repair. Doug at that point knew that we were certainly keen on the story. He got back in touch with us to see if we were interested. At the time we were dedicated to Ballets Russes (2005) so we couldn’t go any further. By the time we finished Ballets Russes, no one had nibbled around with the footage in the intervening years. It was now 2006, we approached the then archivist at Doheny Library. We knew there was no money to support the Archive. We knew there was some urgency because it really was in an accelerated state of decomposition. We made them an offer. “We’ll pay to salvage this material to digital media in exchange for exclusive rights for as long as it takes us to make the film plus five years, so no one could come in and swoop in with the footage.” They agreed. They agreed very quickly. They knew otherwise there’s a strong chance this material would disintegrate fully and they would be out of this valuable archive. There was a real incentive for them. Once we knew we had a visual record, and an extraordinary one shot over five years, we knew we really could make a movie now.
BG: You had a few material difficulties with making the film. It was set in the 1930s with limited footage, you had a story without a resolution. How did you go about constructing a film with those constraints?
DGO: That’s true. When we first heard about the footage we knew it was going to be in a pretty poor state. However, the fact it exists at all is remarkable and so privileged. The first time we allowed the audience to see Dore [Strauch] and Friedrich [Ritter], as this Adam and Eve on this island, it was grainy and gritty. The fact you could see them setting up their home is unbelievable. We learned pretty quickly that it doesn’t matter so much that the footage is so raw. Also we were blessed, because in addition to the 16mm reels, Allan Hancock [who made a film on the island in the 1930s] and his crew shot hundreds and hundreds of really high quality stills. Also we had the writings of everybody. Not just Dore’s book and Margret’s books, which contradict each other, but we also had Friedrich’s articles that he had written, letters that were stuck in the Archives, we had this whole journal that was written by the scientists on the boat who becomes a character on the film.
DGE: I think if it had been a single point of view story that lacked resolution, it would have been frustrating for an audience. I think because there are multiple points of view trying to shove the blame on each other, then it gets to be really engaging. It’s a practical solution. Certainly our experience with audiences afterwards is they’re chatting with each other afterwards going around the block around the theatre, because there isn’t a reliable narrator, and you have to become your own detective.
DGO: To me the problem wasn’t that, it was more, how do you make these people likeable? How do you not make them so over the top and ridiculous that the audience just dismisses them? That was as much a quandary and a challenge. As Dan said, the idea of it not being resolved, for a heartbeat I hoped that it might, which is why we went to island to ask everyone, and went to Floreana, and went to all of the locations. Part of the process is reading as much true crime, and we watched the movie White Mischief and I read the book it was based on [about the murder of Josslyn Hay amongst the Happy Vallet Set in 1941 Kenya], and ultimately my conclusion is that it’s a really banal solution. It makes the whole thing less interesting to know. It was much more about let’s just make it interesting enough that people want to leave the auditorium talking about it, so that made it okay.
DGE: We don’t rush into the most extreme aspects of their personality, or the conflict or the murder mystery. Even though their quest might seem a little foolhardy, certainly in hindsight, enough of their earnestness comes through in what they’re trying to achieve. It’d be easy to make fools out of them.
DGO: I think for me, one of the rules in making any documentary is that you have to love your subject. We’ve never been someone to choose subjects we don’t like. Even with the Baroness—someone a lot of people dismissed as being so outrageous that how could you possibly like her—as a feminist woman I kind of like her. When we went in to talk to Connie Nielson, who played the role of the Baroness, one of the conversations we had with her was, “Is she likeable, what kind of a narcissist is she? Is she the kind that’s ultimately charismatic and makes you like her or the kind you dismiss out of hand?” We told Connie we wanted her to be likeable and she said, “Yes!!” I think the way she reads her lines, it’s coquettish.
DGE: There’s a real darkness to these characters too. It’s neither pity nor condemnation. It realises all of the aspects of these strange personalities, and the humour that’s inherent in this strange situation. All of our films have some laughs in it. If you have unrelenting darkness, it can really wear an audience out.
BG: You have such a metaphorically rich setting. You’ve got the Galápagos, with its links to Darwin and natural selection, and you’ve got 1930s Germans—it’s a goldmine of metaphors in the subject matter itself.
DGO: I’m worried we’ll never have quite as rich a tapestry to work with! It’s unbelievably an embarrassment of riches.
BG: I’m surprised it hasn’t been fictionalised.
DGe: I think there have been attempts along the way to develop scripts. I think part of the problem is that in a two hour regular dramatic film that precludes inner monologue for the most part, where action has to carry the story, it would trivialise and make ridiculous the whole enterprise. Someone will write a funny script, and I think people have tried, but I think that’s one reason it becomes insignificant. The material that we were able to tap into, the writings, was deeply meaningful, even if they were also slightly dishonest.
DGO: Not dishonest.
DGE: Yes they were!
DGO: I would say a combination of self-deception—we’ll never know.
DGE: Someone was lying out there. Let’s just put it out there. We don’t know which one, but someone is.
DGO: Right. But in terms of the death of Friedrich Ritter, we’ll never know whether Dore really believed what she writes, or if it’s a fairy tale. But I think you also have to live with yourself and you have to live with the decision to leave society behind and go off. Who am I to say what she believed in and what she didn’t believe in. She’s an unreliable narrator, as is Margret, as is Friedrich, and the Baroness. Which makes it fabulous because you as the audience member get to pick the truth between all of these interesting characters.
DGE: It’s very difficult to reach that depth in a 90 minute, two hour feature film. A mini-series perhaps. We’ve talked to people who have approached us, they want us to be advisors, and said, “Have you thought about that way to reach the goal?” Also, sure someone could make something, but there is [the original] footage. How can you top that? In my view.
DGO: The other thing is there are so many characters. In a traditional Hollywood movie at least, I think they would consider that number of characters unwieldy. I know there’s a script floating around since the early ’90s. We’ve never actually read the script ourselves, but looking at the précis, they leave off the Wittmer family entirely. That was their solution, but I can’t imagine leaving off any of the triangle of the people.
BG: I also wonder with a narrative feature, there’s more chance of “closure.”
DGO: They did in White Mischief.
BG: It’s an interesting link to White Mischief, this idea of an artificial society being created in a new place, and the old world seeping into it. People being unable to escape the notions they had before they left.
DGO: I think that’s one of the meta-messages of our film. When we were back at the island in 2007, about four or five months before we started to film, and walking around talking to settlers, it became apparent that as much as our film is a murder mystery on the surface, deep down it’s really about humanity’s search for paradise. Basically wherever you go, there you are. There are these meta-lessons to be learned.
BG: It’s fitting then that the doctor is a big Nietzsche fan.
DGO: I know! You asked us why we wanted to make documentaries: how could you make up something like this?
DGE: No one would believe us anyway. No one would believe us.
DGO: Even if people would believe it, I’m not that brilliant. I’d rather plumb reality because it’s way richer than anything I could make up with fiction.
BG: You talked about the desire not to have your audience laugh at the characters and to humanise them. Does that explain your use of voiceovers and focus on the primary texts?
DGE: They need to represent themselves rather than have something imposed on them. The other part of that is they wrote beautifully and they wrote in different styles. You could tell Margret’s writing style from Dora’s writing style. They’re beautifully written, basically [we] cherry-picked them for the script to add dramatic weight to it. I think if we had imposed an outside view, it would have taken away from those characters. Also we were very lucky that we had the journals of John Garth, the entomologist on the Velero, because he could provide some of the temporal and material linkages that might not have been there otherwise.
DGO: In general our films don’t tend to rely on an omniscient narrator and we’ve never made a diary film. We’re not a Werner Herzog-type filmmaker who would go in and overlay our thoughts. It was such a wonderful kaleidoscope of perspectives we would leave it to the audience to come up with their own [interpretation].
BG: It’s a Herzogian story!
DGE: He came knocking. We know him a little bit from other things. One of his assistants called us and asked “how’s that film coming along? Need any help?” “We’re okay.”
DGO: He would have made a very different film. I think he would have overlaid his thoughts. I think all of these people can speak for themselves.
BG: What was your motivation for bringing contemporary commentators in? Was it to delve deeper than simply the murder?
DGO: Exactly. When we went back in the spring of 2007, our intention wasn’t so much to do that. We wanted to look at the locations where we were filming and the people we wanted to meet. We definitely wanted to meet Rolf and Floreanita Wittmer [Margret’s children], and it’s a small town. You can walk up and down the main street in Santa Cruz Island and bump into these people who are still the original settlers or the children of the original settlers. As we started talking to them, that’s when we came up with this idea of a search for paradise. We also realised that in a way they could articulate some of the motivations that weren’t fully articulated, we think, in the copious writings. A lot of what the other families went through, their motivations for coming to the island were amplified and articulated. It made it even more unnecessary to use an omniscient narrator.
DGE: I was really intrigued by the idea of what if you were born on a remote outpost that was your parents’ idea of paradise. Is it your paradise? This is not an easy place to live. It’s so isolated, especially at that time, right through to the 1980s. What is it like to grow up in a place like that and what are the stirrings to leave or to stay? That was fascinating to me. Some of them chose to stay put and some of them chose to come out of there. As far as they can get. That was another draw into weaving in these contemporary characters.
BG: When New Zealand was colonised by the British, a stereotype was that it bred a ‘stoicness’ and an inability to engage with one’s feelings, especially amongst New Zealand men. Is there a similar thing for Galápagos, being so isolated, so at the mercy of the elements, and all of that—there’s no point complaining?
DGO: You’re also dealing with Germans who are very different from Brits. And Norwegians. One of the things that struck us… when we got to Santa Cruz, which is the more populated or settled of the two settled islands, was the children of the early settlers. Even though they’ve never set foot in their parents’ land, they all speak with German accents and they all have more or less that cultural perspective. The Norwegians are very Norwegian, even though they’ve never been to Norway. The Germans are very German. The British are very British.
DGE: They haven’t been colonised by one country and its culture. It’s been this strange Euro-Scandinavian-North American mix. Of course, in later years, heavily Ecuadorian. Ecuador owns those islands and the tourist trade is the life blood out there. It’s a polyglot culture, it didn’t develop a dominant cultural tenor.
DGO: Also the children of the settlers, they all had to speak a number of languages. To have playmates, they need to speak the playmates’ language. I would say it wasn’t so difficult to get them to talk about their feelings. In that small an island, there’s an openness to the occasional stranger who does come. It’s a breath of fresh air. In a lot of ways, because we would show up on a regular basis, asking lots of questions, not wanting to talk about ourselves, coming with open arms “tell us what’s going on,” I think they welcomed that.
BG: So they didn’t feel like you guys were airing their dirty laundry?
DGE: They trusted we wouldn’t be doing that. Subsequently we knew some of the people well enough, that not on camera, and not relevant to the movie, we put out too much dirty laundry. When we were making the movie, they were very honest about their feelings and their ambitions and disappointments. They were very open. We’re not trying to bring anybody else down.
DGO: They trusted us and if you were going to go back and look at the raw footage, more than one of them says, “We’re telling you things because we trust that you’re not going to put this into the film.” We were highly aware the entire time. We made our editor highly aware. These are people who live on an island, they have to live together, there’s no reason in our storytelling to take anyone down.
BG: How much of a role does this foundation story of Floreana play in the Galápagos? Were you tapping into something that resonates now in the Galápagos?
DGE: It’s different now. It’s very different now. The days we portrayed, people were trying to leave civilisation. Leave behind any notion, for want of a better description, a capitalist economy, any economy at all. This question of subsistence, reliance on trading back and forth. This notion of money and advancement had no role whatsoever. It was only when tourism began that a couple of the families thought they would run some tourist operations. Now it’s largely an Ecuadorean operation and you have people who have no interest in the foundational roots of the cultures. They’re bringing their home culture. They’re there to make money as the mainland Ecuador doesn’t have the same economic opportunities. They can earn more on the islands, so it’s a very different sensibility. We did show the movie down there, about five or six weeks ago to the Ecuadorians who were there. They were fascinated by it. By and large that history is not front and centre for them. They don’t have some sort of great orientation towards the roots.
DGO: One of the historians in the film, he has taken upon himself. He’s a self-proclaimed historian and he’s frustrated all of the time, because he’ll work around the island and realise that all of these old people are dying and their history hasn’t been captured. When the Norwegians came, they all brought their own houses from Norway. These prefab things. They’re part of Galápagos history. There’s only one left in the island. It’s an incredible document in a way. We couldn’t fit it into our film. It’s a great DVD extra but when we were filming in 2007 and 2009, it was still more or less preserved, things like the turntable, with the Norwegian LP on it, and all of the crockery. It looked as if it was straight out of Norway. They felt very appreciative that we did document this. In terms of the Floreana story, it’s still discussed to this day. All of the tourists want to talk about it and all of the naturalists on the boat tell the story. Depending on the family, it was or was not an iconic story. Teppy Angermeyer, his dad and his uncle were these great raconteurs, so people heard these ghost stories from them. For the De Roys it wasn’t something they would have talked about that much, unless they were sitting around the campfire with the Angermeyers. Friedel [Horneman], a Norwegian on the island, talked about the remarkable ability to survive on the island on the part of Friedrich and Dore and the machinations of daily life with no one else there.
BG: The one thing I love about Margret Wittmer’s quote (“A closed mouth admits no flies”), it leaves things open for speculation.
DGE: Exactly. People down there from that early settler group were hoping that Margret in her last page would finally reveal something, but she took it to the grave and she played it. Even in her senior years, she would have this twinkle in her eyes, and she played visitors because she knew what was on their mind. Whether she knew what happened is another issue. She played the role of that.
DGO: Some hoped there would be this hidden drawer someplace, and a note or an envelope from Margret. Nothing so far has come up.
Main Image: Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter on Floreana.
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