Tabu (1931) was the final film of renowned German filmmaker F.W. Murnau. Created on the edge of the sound era, the movie is silent, black and white and shot on location in the South Seas. It’s fairly unimaginable that an American studio would have attempted the feat, either with sound or color, yet it was distributed by Paramount Pictures. It is one of the last, great gasps of the silent era, and perhaps a fitting capstone to the career of Murnau, who died even before the film’s premiere.
Starring a cast of locals and with only a few experienced filmmakers on set, the movie tells the story of young lovers caught between between tradition and modernity, with the warm waters of the Polynesian oceans and islands as a backdrop. While lifting from local legends and stories, the telling retains a Euro-centric feel, from trained silent-film posing to the framing of the story. While this sort of cultural imperialism might give viewers pause, this melding of cultures can be seen as simply how Murnau told his story, an amalgamation that makes for a unique narrative experience, working near seamlessly for the silent screen.
While there can be no doubt the filmmakers’ perspective is a narrative construct, they still managed to capture something of the life of the islands at that time -- a way of life no doubt at least somewhat more hegemonized in the march of years since. On screen, the local way of life has not yet been subsumed. In many scenes, locals appear in traditional dress, pilot local longboats, and life and work are presented before the cameras with a hint of the documentary. Later, we see a village with far more outside influence, and -- that in itself -- captures the life of the place in the 1930s. Rather, it’s when the narrative hinges on the direct actions before the camera by our leads that it’s anyone’s guess what was made-up from whole-cloth by Murnau and company.
The story finds Hitu, a sort of holy man, sent to the island home of Reri (an island maiden), and Matahi - her suitor. This portion is slated as “Paradise,” and, indeed the vision of the island is as an Eden. Hitu does not arrive by one of the slim canoes or boats of the locals; he’s on a 20th century European sail boat, manned by a European crew, sent by the King of the islands. A sacred virgin has passed, and the King has chosen Reri as her successor. Hitu proclaims that now, no man may touch Reri nor cast a lustful eye upon her without penalty of death. Moreover, Hitu is to deliver Reri or face death himself.
Reri and Matahi escape to another island, one with a foot firmly in the modern world of the early 20th century. Matahi has no concept of money as he dives for pearls and signs for bills, the world of commerce as much a force as the specter of Hitu which looms over them.
The lush tropical backdrop, combination of storytelling components, the silent form and the nuanced black and white imagery combine into a dream-like atmosphere - Murnau’s stock and trade. The entirety of the movie never loses the feeling of fable or legend even as the realities of the 20th century intrude. It’s not as if money and debt have not been at the heart of many fairy tales and legends.
Though the talent is largely not of American or European trained stock, Murnau’s direction never leaves the viewer feeling as if the movie is a stunt or the play acting of amateurs. The lack of sound and dialogue mean that the film is told largely in pantomime, with nothing lost to translation, poor line delivery or other missteps. Background players are shown as they are, it seems, and so no real acting is needed. The legend is unfolding between the players of day-to-day life.
The images captured in the film show Murnau’s trademark style, his understanding of light and shadow even in this environment of brilliant sunshine. Murnau aficionados won’t find that surprising, but any film viewer will be fascinated by the on-location images captured beautifully and brilliantly in demanding conditions, with a world that seems vanished as the star of the film.
The film stands on its own as a truly unique vision, but Kino has recently released a Blu-ray and DVD of the film with significant extras that provide context for the creation of the film and how such a thing came into existence. A brief documentary on the film (in German with English subtitles), a documentary short made with leftover bits of the film, and snips of footage unused and otherwise from the movie draw a picture of the forces that drew Murnau and his cohorts to Tahiti and Bora Bora, including the reminders of Paul Gauguin’s work on the island and the images showing Henri Matisse and Murnau as contemporaries in the area.
All in all, it makes for a fascinating package. Tabu is little known or discussed in the States, it seems, despite a studio release in 1931. But so many silent films that have survived struggle to compete with 90 years of sound film with which they must compete. But for a unique (to this writer’s eyes) experience, it’s well worth investigating this film as not just a curiosity, but an artifact of an artform at it’s height created in most unusual and fantastic circumstances.