A new film unearths the true story of a 1930s murder mystery in the Galapagos

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. There's a new documentary we want to tell you about. It tries to decode a real life mystery that unfolded on an isolated island in the Pacific. Before we tell you the full story, I want to play you a clip from the film.

[Documentary clip]

Werman: You could call it "When Darwin Met Hitchcock." The time: the 1930's. A handful of Germans pack up their lives and move to one of the most remote places in the world, the Galapagos, to one of the most remote islands of the Galapagos. If they wanted to live like pioneers, they found the right spot. But their story takes a bad turn when two of the islanders disappear under suspicious circumstances. The documentary that tells the story "The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden," is out today. Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller are the filmmakers. This film was not plan A, you didn't start out with the idea of telling this story. What took you to the Galapagos in the first place?

Dan Geller: We were brought down by a friend who was actually working on an interactive middle school curriculum on Evolution and Natural Selection. This was 1998 and we were shooting and doing sound for him. We stumbled across the story when Dayna pulled a book off the shelf of our little boat.

Dayna Goldfine: Much to our surprise, because we had gone down to the Galapagos assuming that there were no human inhabitants and it was really just a place devoted to tortoises and Darwin's finches and iguanas. Much to my surprise when I pulled this book off the shelf, it was about the human history of the islands. It was like "wow, these islands have a human history?" Much to my delight, because I am a true crime aficionado, the third chapter was called "Murder in Paradise," so I was just like "wow, not only are there people that live here but there's a murder mystery," so I was hooked.

Werman: It is an amazing story and you didn't have to write a screenplay for a feature film to tell it in part because you had these incredible home movies at your disposal to tell the story. The fact that there was all this black and white footage is just amazing. How'd you get it?

Geller: That was the key to unlocking this whole movie because we didn't know that footage was there for the first couple of years that we were mulling over what to do, if there was a way to approach the movie and then this same friend, who we owe at least a dinner out at this point, was told about this archive of footage that Captain Allan Hancock, a very wealthy philanthropist from Los Angeles, had amassed over the years, taking scientists down to the Galapagos. Over the course of five years, he returned annually to film the goings on on the island of Floreana and we approached the archivist at the Doheny library and the footage was falling to pieces. We said "look, we'll take the risk and see if we can save it if we can have access to it for our film," and that's how it all began.

Werman: Tell me a little bit more about these German settlers on this remote island in the Galapagos. Why'd they go there in the first place?

Geller: Doctor Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch left because Ritter had, the best way to put it, been destroyed psychologically by WWI, by fighting in the trenches. He lost his faith in humanity and decided he would, along the lines of a Nietzsche and Ubermensch, try to rebuild himself and test himself against nature and also perhaps write the next great philosophical track that would account for this change of 20th century humankind.

Goldfine: They were also, the first couple, Ritter and Strauch, were, in many ways, living out their own mythical representation or embodiment of Adam and Even. They were called "the Adam and Eve of the Galapagos." Despite the fact that they went to find absolute and utter solitude, they were discovered by the tabloids, mostly because letters that they wrote home to friends and family were published by the friends and family members, they sent them off to the papers and journalists. So much to their dismay, the world descended upon them and dubbed them the "Adam and Eve." It began to take on mythological qualities, the whole story.

Werman: Were they good pioneers, at least?

Goldfine: Given that all of the people that settled on this one island, Floreana in particular, were not experienced settlers in the least, they were urban people. Dr. Ritter was a physician, Dore Strauch, his girlfriend, had been a housewife. The next family that came were no more suited to be pioneers and yet all of these people not only made it but made it really well. They figured out how to build their houses and how to survive in a very, very harsh environment.

Werman: So life is tough for these pioneers and then their tale takes a strange turn when they're joined on the island by a threesome, including a woman they believe to be a baroness.

[Documentary clip]

Werman: And the plot thickens, as they say. Who was the baroness? Where was she from?

Geller: The baroness was her own best publicist and mythologizer. She claimed to have been from Austria, although some say that might have been just her first point of departure. She left from Paris where she had a little boutique, a little clothing store. None of this would suggest that this woman was so outlandish to have multiple lovers, the intention to build a hotel for American millionaire yachtsmen stopping by and perhaps even a quest to become a Hollywood movie star.

Werman: And quickly she starts to annoy the Germans who are already on the island.

Geller: She lived about as far from the Wittmer family as one house is next to the other in a suburban track, it was a necessity because there were only two springs on the entire island. So when the Wittmers first came, Ritter took them about an hour or so walk away to the other spring to keep them far away and the baroness then presumed that she would just land right next to the Wittmers and more or less have her, some might say debauched existence, cheek by jowl with the Wittmers as they were trying to raise their son and Margaret actually was then five months pregnant and about to give birth to another boy.

Werman: What do you believe happened to the baroness?

Geller: Some argued that she boarded a boat to Tahiti with one of her lovers because she gave up on the plan for the hotel but if you watch the movie you'll figure out pretty quickly that there's no way, at least in my opinion, that she could land anywhere else in the world without drawing attention to herself. So I think she and one of the lovers disappeared and another lover washed up dead on another island. It's such a small group, so many wound up dying and the memoirs that exist and which formed some of the script that we've heard with these wonderful actors reading, all point fingers at each other, which makes it frustrating but also kind of fun to enter into the guessing game to figure out whose version of the truth might one believe.

Werman: What's your stance? Was there a murder?

Goldfine: I will say I don't think she left the island.

Geller: "I think there was a murder."

Werman: Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, the filmmakers behind "The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden," which is out today. Thanks both of you very much.

Geller: Thank you so much Marco.

Goldfine: Thank you.

Werman: Recognize that voice? That'd be Cate Blanchett. You can hear the story of how she became the voice of Dore Strauch at PRI.org.