A utopian experiment on an uninhabited island; a love triangle; a mystery baroness with two love slaves and poor hygiene; iguanas and giant tortoises; unsolved disappearances; sensational news stories; and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, all under the pall of looming war. How could this not be a great documentary? By putting it in the hands of Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, who have squandered their sensational subject into a two-hour slog.
It begins in 1929 Germany, when Dr. Friedrich Ritter (voice of Thomas Kretschmann), fed up with a repressive, materialistic society and inspired by Nietzsche, journeys with his patient, lover, and acolyte Dore Strauch (Cate Blanchett) to the most remote spot in the world — uninhabited Floreana Island in the Galapagos archipelago. Dumping spouses and everything else, they seek Paradise in the midst of this wilderness.
Turns out to be a bad deal for Dore, as Ritter embraces not just the philosophy but also the misogyny of his Übermensch idol: He nags Strauch about her weakness (she had multiple sclerosis) and failure to keep up with the program. So Paradise is already troubled before Heinz Wittmer (Sebastian Koch), drawn by newspaper stories about the experiment and foreseeing war in Europe, arrives uninvited and sets up a rival homestead with his pregnant wife, Margret (Diane Kruger), and their son. And when the pistol-packing baroness (Connie Nielsen) shows up with two paramours, the stage is set for a melodrama displaying human nature at its most depraved.
Back in 1998, Goldfine and Geller approached the now deceased Margret Wittmer, the only surviving witness to what happened, but she refused to talk. Luckily Margret, her husband Heinz, Dr. Ritter, and Strauch had already written books or kept journals about their experiences — much of them contradictory. The filmmakers also had access to a cache of footage and photos of the events, which, combined with texts read by top actors, seemingly gave them plenty to work with.
Nonetheless, they insisted on including the present-day, inane reflections of the original islanders’ descendants and others of even less relevance. Why cut from Blanchett’s Strauch provocatively proclaiming, “I know henceforth that I shall be possessed by the dread that Friedrich and myself will be the next victims of the murderer who stalks Floreana. . . !” to banal analyses from those whose only credentials are that they now live on the islands?
Come to think of it, Strauch’s orotund prose sounds much like that of Werner Herzog, but without the irony. Herzog’s sensibility is missed here; he could have made a masterpiece about the absurdity of these deluded seekers of Eden.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.