Director: F.W. Murnau
Told by: F.W. Murnau & Robert J. Flaherty
Starring: Matahi, Anne Chevalier, Bill Bambridge, Hitu
Producers: F.W. Murnau & Robert J. Flaherty
Running Time: 82 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Tabu (or Tabu: A Story of the South Seas to give it its full title) is a film whose behind the scenes story and production process is probably more interesting than the film itself. After having some trouble with his last two studio films, Four Devils and City Girl, silent film master F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, Sunrise etc.) took some time out in the South Pacific and fell in love with the place. He wished to make a film about Tahiti and met with Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North) who had some experience with the natives there. The two of them wrote a story together and started their own production company, Flaherty-Murnau Productions. After struggling to secure funding for the project, Murnau decided to finance it himself and production began in 1930.
By this time Flaherty and Murnau did not get on though. Flaherty was angry that Murnau had re-written the script and in his opinion made it more Westernised and plotted whereas he wanted to create a more natural docudrama that explored the exploitation of the natives by Western colonists. Originally thought to be co-director, Flaherty was ‘demoted’ to director of photography, although after reportedly having technical problems, Floyd Crosby, the supposed second camera operator, ended up shooting pretty much everything (other than some shots from the opening scenes). This led to Flaherty spending most of the production in the lab developing film.
Some of Flaherty’s input must have still stuck with Murnau though, as the cast was made up almost solely of native non-actors, reflecting the influential American documentary-maker’s technique of keeping subjects natural even if some of what is seen is constructed by the filmmaker. Everything was shot on location of course too, lending a natural beauty to the film and providing a stunning look at a relatively unspoilt tropical paradise. Murnau’s meticulous control over the staging of each shot, as visually-impressive as it can be, prevents the film from looking totally natural though.
And Murnau’s control over proceedings in general is what let the film down for me a bit. It looks gorgeous of course, but the story is rather simple and not particularly involving. Basically an island boy (Matahi) falls for a girl, Reri (Anne Chevalier), but she is soon chosen to be the tribe’s sacred virgin, who will be sent away by tribal elder Hitu to live a life of solitude and celibacy, making her ‘Tabu’. She isn’t happy with this at all and the boy of course is devastated, so he sneaks her away in the night and the two of them start a new life on another island. They initially get on well there, but exploitation from the Western and Westernised inhabitants makes life difficult and the looming threat of the curse of Tabu which has been cast upon them for their actions is ever dominant.
For what is quite a simple narrative, there is always something dramatic happening and the film is surprisingly pacey for its age, but I never found it particularly stimulating or emotionally effective. For example, without wanting to give too much away, the ending is incredibly downbeat, but I was never really invested enough in the characters to care, leading to a feeling of surprise at the finale rather than a feeling of devastation which was probably the intention. I couldn’t help but compare this to the incredible Sunrise, which had me a gibbering wreck with its mixture of tenderness and darkness to craft one of the most beautifully touching films about love ever made.
That said, there are moments where the naturalistic production process help add a lot of humanity to Tabu. The chemistry between the central couple is strong and early moments where their love blossoms are well handled, especially a dance sequence where the happiness and passion between them burns into the screen.
So it is an intermittently effective film and is undeniably beautiful as well as ahead of its time in using non-actors to create a more natural drama. Unfortunately though, especially seeing as it was Murnau’s final film (he died in a car accident a week before its New York premiere), it doesn’t really have the emotional weight or substance to make it rise above being a pretty curiosity.
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas is out on June 24th in the UK on Blu-Ray and DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. As ever, the picture quality is outstanding, with a very clear and detailed image on Blu-Ray (other than a few flecks here and there – not bad for an 80-odd year old film) and strong vintage soundtrack.
There are a great host of special features. Tabu: The Cinematic Legacy, a 15 minute documentary on the making of the film, is dryly narrated but extremely informative, filling the viewer in on the fascinating back-story behind the film. Treibjagd in der Südsee is a 1940 documentary made up of unused Tabu footage. This is nice enough, but very similar to the start of the film itself. A collection of outtakes is also included, with another dry voiceover explaining what we’re watching. This is pretty dull for the first few minutes, but becomes more interesting as we’re shown the varying footage of Robert J. Flaherty and Floyd Crosby. Then on top of this you get a feature length commentary with film historian R. Dixon Smith and critic Brad Stevens. I haven’t had time to listen to this unfortunately, but a commentary is always a welcome addition to a DVD/Blu-Ray in my opinion.
Of course, being a Masters of Cinema release you also get a handsomely presented booklet full of essays, interviews and behind the scenes material. This is especially interesting to read given the unique background of the film.