ArtsATL > Film > Review: Two documentaries take different paths to show the salvation, harshness of nature

Review: Two documentaries take different paths to show the salvation, harshness of nature

A still from "The Galapagos Affair."
A still from "The Galapagos Affair."
A still from The Galapagos Affair.

Hell is other people, right? Then again, other people can make for a heaven on earth.

Those polar world views define the documentaries The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden and Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. For this coincidental, sin-or-salvation diptych (the films just happen to be opening simultaneously at Landmark Midtown), let’s start with Satan first.

Galapagos Affair takes us to the end of the world — the rocky, arid islands far west of South America, where the only creatures that endure are tortoises and lizards. (Also, Charles Darwin’s crew for a short time.) It’s a place for people who really want to leave civilization behind. The problem? Such a locale is guaranteed to attract extreme individualists, outsiders and oddballs, who stand almost zero chance of living in harmony with one another.

In 1929, a Nietzsche-reading German physician named Friedrich Ritter lands on Floreana, a completely uninhabited part of the Galapagos cluster. He’s running away from his wife and practice in the company of a patient, Dore Strauch. She leaves behind her own husband, but can’t shed herself of the mild multiple sclerosis that brought her to Ritter’s consulting room to begin with.

Vegetarians, they plant seeds in the rocky soil and spend their days laboring to draw shelter and sustenance from the bleak surroundings. In a typical journal entry, Ritter declares, “For us there is only discipline! We must conquer by will!” Easy enough for a muscled Nietzschean bantam like him, not so easy for a woman with MS.

Subsistence becomes a secondary issue in 1932 with the unexpected arrival (all arrivals are unexpected) of the Wittmer family: Heinz, pregnant wife Margret, and a sickly teen son. They’ve come to Floreana, lured by exaggerated tales of this island “paradise,” culled from Ritter and Strauch’s letters back home. These have been seized on by the German press, which prints all sorts of imagined seaside shenanigans for this adulterous Adam and Eve. 

The Wittmers are nothing compared to the year’s next arrival: Eloise von Wagner, a self-styled baroness claiming her uncles were Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. Think of a Teutonic Auntie Mame fused with Eva Peron, and accompanied by two boy-toys who share her bed.

Like the rest, they’re all from Germany. Buck-toothed and slack-chested, the baroness is nobody’s standard idea of beautiful. It’s believable, though, that on an island with only two other handsome but demure women, she exerted power over this handful of men — even the ones who weren’t sure whether they wanted to put a hatchet through her head or make love to her, or both. “She is, in one way, so trivial and frivolous and, in another way, so sinister,” writes Strauch in a journal entry. Indeed.

Or, as a contemporary resident of Floreana says, “There are people in this world that just beg to be killed.” That’s not a spoiler, exactly. But as the baroness stomps across Floreana, declaring herself its sole owner and planning to build a hotel to lure tourists from around the globe, tempers rise to a murderous degree. Things don’t end well for several people on the island, which proves, after all, to be no refuge from the evils of capitalism, territoriality and ego.

For something that happened long ago and far away, these events are surprisingly well documented, thanks to the yellow-journalism fantasies of the German newspapers; contemporary film footage shot on Floreana (wait till you see the baroness starring as a lady pirate in the silent melodrama The Empress of Floreana); and the islanders’ plentiful journals. (Well, what else did they have to write about on this rock, besides the sky, drought and how much they loathed each other?) The journal entries are voiced onscreen by actors; the starriest of them is Cate Blanchett, reading Strauch’s sometimes disputed account of what happened.

Present-day interludes, featuring current Galapagos residents, are interesting at first, less so as the movie continues. Maybe the interviews were a quid pro quo the filmmakers needed in exchange for access? The movie is too long as a consequence. And, ultimately, the mysteries at its center remain unsolved. Much of Galapagos Affair is pure speculation — but tantalizing speculation, with a body count.

For a spiritual palate cleanser, consider Walking the Camino. Here, complete strangers are also forced into close contact and weather the elements together. The result, by contrast, is moral uplift, not mayhem.

Lydia Smith’s documentary follows six travelers along the Camino de Santiago, for a sometimes grueling walk of hundreds of miles across Europe to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.

For many, it remains what it always was: a path of pilgrimage, a hike to the shrine of St. James the Great. For many others, it’s a test of strength, a cheap way to see some of France and Spain’s lovelier countryside, or just a great way to meet lots of cool people from around the world. Or a mix. “Some begin the Camino as tourists and end as pilgrims,” one priest says. And yes, even amid the blisters, the symphony of snoring in the hostels, the drenching rainstorms and burning sunshine, Walking discovers ample moments of grace.

An American woman, miffed at having to sleep jammed up against a bulky German stranger, gets an attitude readjustment through that same man’s unexpected kindness the next day.

A devout Frenchwoman grows increasingly angry with her walking companion, her un-devout brother whom she feels lacks the proper piety. But what she sees as his irresponsible party spirit can seem much closer to a state of joyous divinity than her own clenched religiosity.

Then there’s the Danish woman and the Canadian man 10 years her junior, strangers when they meet who usually prefer to hike alone, but discover that their walking pace is identical. Soon, they’re as inseparable as some of the older couples who come to this pathway after decades of marriage. 

The pilgrimage is seen here as both arduous physical challenge and existential metaphor. When a bleach-blond Brazilian woman, trying to clear her head and tidy up her messy young life, says, “I can’t keep walking for eternity,” the multiple meanings ripple out like water. A much older, white-haired man, nearing life’s end and trying to heal from the death of his wife, says, “Every day is a journey, and the road itself is home.” To its immense credit, the movie shows us that an observation like this — which could come across like a smug needlepoint slogan — is wise, deep and true.

Note: Camino director Lydia Smith will attend the Atlanta screenings on May 2 and 3 at 5 and 7:15 p.m.

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden. A documentary by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine. Unrated. 120 minutes. In multiple languages, with subtitles. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. A documentary by Lydia Smith. Unrated. 84 minutes. In multiple languages, with subtitles. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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