Tabu: A Story of the South Seas
Director: F.W. Murnau / Script: F. W. Murnau & Robert Flaherty / Editing: Arthur A. Brooks / DP: Floyd Crosby
Cast: Matahi / Anne Chevalier (as Reri) / Bill Bambridge / Hitu
Tabu In Paradise…
One of the greats of German silent-cinema, F. W. Murnau directed a string of notable pictures during the Twenties, the stand-out being the genuinely-disturbing Nosferatu (1922). I’ve also reviewed a couple of his other pictures: Phantom (1922) and The Grand Duke’s Finances (1924), the latter, featuring an indoor steeplechase of pet dogs that remains an extraordinary spectacle.
In 1926, Murnau emigrated to the USA and found a home at the Fox Studio, directing a trio of highly-regarded pictures over the next four years. But the Hollywood ‘studio-system’ had become both a personal and creatively stifling environment for Murnau so, in 1931, he decamped to the French Polynesian archipelago of Bora Bora. His intention, was to shoot something without studio support or financial backing. His partner in this enterprise, was documentary film-maker Robert Flaherty, but their working relationship grew so toxic, that Murnau soon had Flaherty replaced; stand-in cameraman Floyd Crosby, ended-up photographing the whole picture, with the opening scenes Flaherty’s remaining contribution. Eventually, Murnau would buy-out Flaherty’s copyright and interest in the resulting picture Tabu: A Story of the South Seas.
As it turned-out, Tabu would be Murnau’s last film. A week before its opening, he was killed in a car accident (in a Packard limousine, driven by his fourteen-year old Filipino house-boy). Given the quality of the films he’d directed to that point, it’s fun to speculate about what Murnau might’ve produced, had he lived to embrace the possibilities of the ‘talkie’. Whilst Tabu had been partially shot with sound, the final cut reverted to a silent film, as per his wishes.So, then, to the film itself. There’s much to like here, in this ‘loose’ adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but don’t watch this in the hope of being engrossed by plot… In essence, we have lithe, athletic Matahi (playing a part called ‘the Boy’) who happens to be The Most Popular Boy in the Village and who’s also in-love with Reri (a-k-a ‘the girl’). Murnau sets this up, with Eden-like shots, showing the leads and their ‘gang’, at-play in the Fields of the Lord. Their existence is Sylvan, care-free and therefore, doomed, as is the way of things.
Trouble comes in the form of a twin-masted schooner called ‘Moana’ (memo to Disney: were you watching this for inspiration?). The whole village is driven into a frenzy at its arrival and Murnau’s great at capturing their fizzing excitement, as they jump into whatever sea-going canoes or rafts are available, just to get out to the Good Ship Moana and greet its newcomers.
Unfortunately for Reri, they include a tribal elder called Hitu who’s come to claim her as his latest bride (it’s a rite of deference her father – the village chief – must obey). Inevitably, Matahi objects to the forced marriage of ‘his girl’ and one night, in defiance of the decree, he steals her away in a canoe. This act defies Hitu’s declaration of ‘Tabu’ – a curse – and seals the end of Act One.
Murnau entitled Act One ‘Paradise’, so it’s inevitable that Act Two, should be ‘Paradise Lost’. Read its opening title card: ‘Fleeing the vengeance of the Tabu, the guilty lovers fought their way over leagues of open sea, seeking some island of the pearl trade, where the white man rules and the old gods are forgotten’.
So it proves. They find their way into a new life, but have come from a society with little-to-no conception of money, so when Matahi first discovers champagne at a nearby bar and orders bottles for everyone present, we know there’s going to be a reckoning down the road and for that, Murnau keeps us guessing.
Meanwhile, Hitu keeps showing-up at the door of their new hut (the Moana having docked on their island). He hides from Matahi and instead only spooks Reri, giving her three days in which to leave Matahi and clear the Tabu… But Reri HAS A PLAN: Matahi’s a fine pearl diver and has accumulated enough specimens to pay for their passage out of the island aboard the next mail boat. She sends him off to the town and he sells the pearls for cash money. In turn, it’s then claimed by the wily bar owner. Bereft, Matahi decides he’s going to dive out at a spot that’s marked by a warning buoy: a spot patrolled by a killer-shark. The sign actually reads ‘Tabu’ so Matahi is, literally, confronting the metaphorical evil. If he can beat it, he gets sufficient pearls to buy their tickets…
Meanwhile, Reri has decided to go with Hitu and spare Matahi the fate of Tabu, so while he’s out diving in shark-infested waters, she writes him a note and climbs, willingly, into Hitu’s dinghy. Oops…
Matahi returns with a black pearl the size of a gobstopper (having seen-off the rubberiest shark I think I’ve ever seen). On reading Reri’s note, he sprints, swims, sprints and swims again, out beyond the reef, in the hope of catching Hitu. He gets a fingertip onto a trailing rope and for a split second, Murnau has you believe he’s got a chance. But this movie’s called ‘Tabu’, not ‘Redemption’ and for good reason.
So we watch, almost agape, as the implacable Hitu merely slides the cover back over his boat’s hold, to conceal Reri (or keep her from seeing what he’s about to do) then cuts the rope with a knife. Murnau’s camera is fixed throughout, capturing such a simple act in all its unfolding horror.
The evocative score is at its most strident here too, as we se Matahi’s desperate, thrashing lunges to catch-up, peaking with a shimmering cymbal-crash at the moment the rope’s cut. The tempo then abates with emotional release. After holding the camera on a diminishing Matahi, Murnau returns to the inscrutable Hitu, then back to Matahi who drowns, exhausted and broken: thus paying the price of the Tabu.
Murnau shows us an uncomplicated tale of love, loss and acceptance, set in a timeless, almost legendary paradise. His decision to eschew spoken dialogue and continue his exploration of the silent film, gives us another example of ‘Pure Cinema’; the film tells its story through visual images, depicting expressionistic characters whose reactions and natural behaviour, tell their own story. Be under no illusion, however: Murnau directed the whole shebang; he just chose not to use dialogue.
The film’s main themes revolve around ‘loss of innocence’ and the inability to escape, fully, one’s home culture and environment. If it sounds simplistic, that’s because it is. There isn’t a lot left, once these messages have been hammered home. We know that Murnau was writing his shooting-script on-location, which leads to speculation that production began before the story was properly-formed. Add-in the ongoing vexations between Murnau and Flaherty and the production sounds a long-way from Paradise…
So it’s a curio of a film. A period-piece, that affords a rare glimpse of a lost-world, now dominated by luxury resorts, whose lagoons of beach-huts-on-stilts are inhabited by newly-weds of the New World. Ninety years ago, Murnau showed us those same beach huts and would-be elopers scampering over those same beaches: have we really come so-far, for so little?
I will go so that you may live. The Tabu is upon us.