Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, 1931
Dir: F.W. Murnau & Robert Flaherty
So after City Girl (1930), Murnau became fed up with the lack a recognition that he was getting in Hollywood. He decided to take a break on the south Pacific island of Bora Bora. He soon fell in love with the island and its people, and the idea for this film came about with collaboration from one of the first great documentary filmmakers, Flaherty, who made Nanook of the North (1922). They started off well, but soon began to differ over much of the content, and the end result is something much more in tune with Murnau's vision than to Flaherty's (he actually left before filming was completed). Murnau would finish the picture by himself, and then die in a car crash on the way to the LA premier.
Considering the obvious limitations that come with film making from the time period, Tabu really couldn’t be any better. It is narrative diffuse and free-wheeling in the best possible way and anticipates the more frantic cinematic style found in filmmakers like Werner Herzog. In addition, Murnau has Robert Flaherty helping out and he is probably responsible for the exquisite visuals. On the other hand, Murnau himself seems to be the one responsible for the more conventional dramatic touches that prevent the film from being completely mind blowing. Lovers Reri and Matahi are separated when Hitu comes looking for a new virgin to sacrifice to God. The couple’s situation is tragic but soon cured as Matahi rescues Reri and the two explore the sea to find a new place to live. They stumble upon an island controlled by, as the inter-titles eloquently put, the white man. Their conditions are no longer ideal, but they are now free and things begin to look up for the two as Matahi discovers a talent for diving, to the delight of many people. The way that Murnau captures the moment of the village festival, that atmosphere, is absolutely awesome. I think it's my favorite part of the film. This bliss is short-lived, however, as Hitu quickly discovers the whereabouts of Reri and attempts to reclaim her. Meanwhile, Matahi’s language barrier is being exploited by the town regulars.
I’d be lying if I said I was completely immersed in it, but it does still maintain a very strong atmosphere, which, as I said, draws upon Flaherty’s experience as a documentary filmmaker. Visually, things are in top form as well. I've mentioned Murnau’s dislike of inter-titles and it’s very apparent here as no spoken dialogue is translated into inter-title form. Instead, the narrative relies on shots of written documents for exposition. For the most part, the story is downplayed in favor of a much more visual-driven style, which, if I haven’t made obvious already, is Tabu’s greatest strength. As great as all that is, there isn’t anything for one to latch on to, emotionally. Certainly the couple’s fate is tragic and Anne Chevalier is extremely captivating. By the end of the day, it all seems inconsequential, even considering just how tragic the story is on paper. I suppose this might be a sign of the film’s age but I can’t really fault it for something explicable especially when it does take a lot of risks. A beautiful and influential film, but not mindblowing on its own terms is what I think I've been trying to say.