Tabu: A Story of the South Seas

Fiona Pleasance watches Eureka’s new DVD release of Murnau’s classic.tabu1

Tabu (1931) is a film which inhabits boundaries.  The crossing of social and religious barriers drives its plot.  Originally conceived as a colour picture, Tabu was released in black and white.  Despite appearing four years into the sound era, it is silent, albeit with a synchronised music score.  It is a fiction film containing documentary-like sequences, originally conceived as an investigation into the encroachment of modernity onto the traditional Polynesian way of life, but ending up as a melodrama straight from the Hollywood mould.  Independently (self-) financed in the first instance, the film was effectively bailed out when Paramount bought the distribution rights.  It was planned as a collaboration between two of the most important directors of 1920s cinema, but one took over and the other departed the project; film historians have been arguing about the relative influence of each ever since.

And, saddest of all, Tabu turned out to be the final film made by its credited director, F. W. Murnau, who died following a car crash one week before the film’s New York premiere.

The movie is named for the taboo at the centre of its plot; the English word itself derives from the Polynesian “tabu” meaning sacred or forbidden.  On the edenic Polynesian island of Bora-Bora, where the traditional way of life is still followed, a young couple (either referred to as “The Boy” and “The Girl” or by their apparent real names, Matahi and Reri) are in love.  A schooner arrives bearing an elderly warrior from another clan, with news that the virgin “sacred to our gods” has died, and that the honour of replacing her falls to Bora-Bora.  The chosen one is Reri, and from that moment on she becomes ‘tabu’, so any man who touches her or “casts upon her the eye of desire” will be punished by death.  The young lovers escape to a French colony on another island, but find themselves torn between the demands of modernity and capitalism on the one hand and ancient superstitions on the other.  Ultimately, both prove too much, and the prophecy is fulfilled.


The film itself is beautiful to look at.  The original plan was for Robert Flaherty, the director of Nanook of the North (1922), famously one of the first feature-length ethnographic documentaries, to shoot the film himself, but he had technical difficulties and called on the assistance of cameraman Floyd Crosby (father of David, obscure-fact fans).  Crosby ended up taking over as Director of Photography, and the quality of his work was such that he won that year’s Cinematography Oscar.  Apparently, Flaherty, Murnau and Crosby were the only professionals who worked on the movie, the rest of the crew being made up of natives, mostly to save money.

The acting in Tabu is surprisingly effective and natural, if a little uneven at times, which, given that virtually all of the roles are filled by locals with no previous film experience, is hardly surprising.  There is a generational split in the acting styles: the older characters are very controlled, especially the stern und unyielding Old Warrior, clearly not to be swayed by ephemeral emotions like love.  Reri’s mother also seems fairly impassive when consoling her sobbing daughter, which makes the moment when Reri has to leave in a canoe and her mother cannot bear to let her go all the more moving.  Against this, the young Polynesians bubble over with charm and energy, and the natural charisma of the leads in particular is a joy to watch.  Reri has the more thankless role (she seems to spend about half of her screen time cowering, in tears, or both), but Matahi is a magnetic presence, and the delight they take in each other in their scenes together comes across clearly.

That all of this could happen despite the tensions inherent in the production is remarkable.  Flaherty and Murnau had long wanted to work together, and the opportunity seemed to present itself after Murnau, disillusioned with Hollywood, bought himself a yacht and took off for Tahiti.  Flaherty had some experience of Polynesia having worked on Moana and White Shadows in the South Seas a few years earlier.  With financing secured from Colorart, a small American production company, the two began writing.

But then the Wall Street Crash happened, their funding dried up, and Murnau switched back to black and white and decided to stump up his own cash for the project.  Did this decision lead to a shift in power between the two men?  Certainly, technical issues or no, only the first scene of the completed film, a depiction of local fish-hunting, was shot and directed by Flaherty.  Did he dislike the increasingly fictional direction the film was taking?  Ironically, Flaherty himself was not unknown to stage scenes for the camera, but apparently the extent of the narrativization of Tabu was too much for him.

Flaherty and Murnau.
Flaherty and Murnau.

If the label “structured reality” had been in use in the late 1920s, might Murnau and Flaherty have found it helpful for the nature of their collaboration?  As it was, the two men parted ways, apparently on fairly on equivocal terms, and Murnau subsequently used the money earned from selling the film to Paramount to buy Flaherty out.  In a final ironic twist, the outtakes, of which there were many, were subsequently edited together to make a documentary about the South Sea Islanders after all.  This film, Triebjagd in der Südsee (Drive Hunting in the South Seas), 1940, and a compilation of outtakes from Tabu, both in German with English subtitles, are included on the Eureka DVD.

For all that there were other hands on the tiller, Tabu is still recognisably a Murnau film, particularly in the use of titles and in the subjective cinematography.  Murnau doesn’t seem to have liked dialogue titles very much, and often keeps them to a minimum; Tabu, like his masterpiece of the German ‘Kammerspielfilm’, Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), 1924, avoids them altogether.  Instead, we get relatively detailed expository intertitles, most of which are motivated by the story, like a look at the edict naming Reri as the new sacred virgin and setting out the details of the Tabu, or in the reports written by the local policeman, some of them fading from Polynesian or French to English as necessary.  In Tabu, the use of these intertitles can be a little clumsy (a couple contain reams of exposition and take their time accordingly), but they also mean that many scenes can then run without interruption, allowing the characterisation to develop accordingly.

Along with the directors of the French Impressionist movement of the 1920s, Murnau was something of a pioneer when it came to the use of the subjective camera to show what was going on in characters’ minds.  Tabu contains one subjective shot and one dream sequence as good as anything in Der Letzte Mann.  Interestingly, these subjective passages, where the film leaves all pretence to be a documentary behind, are also where it really comes alive.  Some of the sequences showing indigenous customs go on rather longer than is good for the drama, and despite the filmmakers’ best interests, the film can’t help but have a somewhat ambiguous position regarding Western interest in native traditions, for all that the plot addresses the culture clash involved.

Reri, Murnau and Matahi during a break in filming.
Reri, Murnau and Matahi during a break in filming.

As with so many films released by Eureka under its Masters of Cinema label, this (hopefully) definitive version of Tabu has undergone restoration and reconstruction, thanks this time to the work of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Foundation in Germany.  Scenes from the film had been removed prior to the initial US release; “nudity in fact or in silhouette” was banned by the Production Code, and though in the so-called “Pre-Code” era Hollywood directors were still able to push these restrictions a little, the naked breasts of the young Polynesian dancers were apparently still beyond the pale.  Also, Murnau’s title cards have been reinstated, and the film appears in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio for the first time.  It was not uncommon for films with an optical soundtrack to have an almost square picture before the definition of Academy Ratio in 1932, but as this is a little unusual in retrospect, they were sometimes masked for subsequent releases.

In addition to the extras already mentioned, the DVD includes a short documentary about the making of Tabu (actually an excerpt from a longer film about Murnau’s life and work called Die Sprache der Schatten – The Language of Shadows), also in German with English subtitles.

So while Tabu might not quite be a silent masterpiece on the scale of Murnau’s earlier films Nosferatu, Der Letzte Mann or Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, it is certainly worth a look, and, as ever, Eureka are to be applauded for making interesting older films more widely available in good quality restorations.

Tabu, from the Eureka ‘Masters of Cinema’ series, is out now now on Blu-ray and DVD.

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