By DAVID CRUMM
This film might have been titled: The Perils of Pursuing Paradise.
Ever since the late 1800s when Jules Verne began publishing his international best-sellers, the world has been fascinated by the idea of dramatically escaping from civilization. Flash forward to 2014 and a dozen popular TV series are fueled by that same desire. In late September, the National Geographic Channel will debut another one: Live Free or Die, a series that looks at Americans trying to survive in remote woods and swamps.
Now, Zeitgeist Films brings us one of the strangest true stories of escaping adventurers. This mixed bag of misfits converged on a remote island in the Galapagos chain between the two World Wars. Their tale is so wild that a writer for the Smithsonian Institution, reporting on the Smithsonian’s extensive archives about this strange adventure, described the story as “a screwball farce peopled by eccentrics” that “abruptly turned to tragedy.”
During the heyday of this Galapagos experiment, lurid magazines around the world published fanciful dispatches from this little colony with headlines that included: “The Nudist Empress of the Galapagos” and “Mad Empress in the Garden of Eden” and “The Insatiable Baroness who Created Her Own Paradise.”
As it turns out, the real pioneer in this “paradise” was a German doctor with a grandiose vision of his role as a philosopher and naturalist. He apparently was a very effective wilderness pioneer, building many hand-made devices to make his island home a pleasurable place to live. But he also was motivated by a selfishness that amounted to loathing other people. When an odd-ball mix of other adventurers showed up on this doctor’s remote island, trouble was all but certain.
The adventurer who was chiefly responsible for the island’s global acclaim was a woman with even more grandiose visions than the doctor. She called herself a baroness (even though she wasn’t) and very publicly set up a household with a rotating series of male lovers. She even began production on a silent film with herself starring as a savage, scantily clad pirate! Some footage of this bizarre movie is included in the documentary.
No wonder the Smithsonian columnist wound up publishing a long, four-part summary of this strange tale as the saga is “told” through the Washington D.C. archives. (Here are the four parts: One, Two, Three and Four.)
Much more dramatic than this Smithsonian Internet series is the two-hour documentary by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, the folks who brought us the acclaimed documentary, Ballet Russes, which also dipped back into this pre-World War II era to give us a vivid portrait of the world-famous Russian troupe.
Why is ReadTheSpirit magazine reviewing this film? Because dreams of finding a remote paradise run throughout the long and tangled history of the world’s great religious movements, from some of the founding communities in what is now the United States (Remember the Pilgrims, the Puritans and the Shakers?) to tragic cults like Jim Jones’ Jonestown in Guyana where more than 900 people died in 1978.
Perhaps most fascinating about this cautionary tale from the Galapagos is that the German doctor’s master work of philosophy was ultimately of no interest to publishers in the civilized world and, instead, in 1935 his lover Dore Strauch published her own version of the island experiment, Satan Came to Eden: A Survivor’s Account of the Galapagos Affair.
This definitely is a mesmerizing two hours! It’s also a good choice for sparking conversation in any small group that enjoys discussing either new films or global issues.