There is a strange conflict between the elements of Murnau’s Tabu that seems to be simultaneously on and under the surface. The film symbolizes an escape for Murnau – from Hollywood’s artistic control that went in the way of his previous two films, 4 Devils and City Girl; from the strict traditionalism of German and American cultures; and into a care-free world of perfect weather, simple economics and amplified creative freedom. But this is not what is shown in Tabu.
What is shown is a Tahiti with mixed feelings towards colonization, with the downsides of local tradition and transformative foreign intervention joining forces against its protagonists, and against the notion itself that the archipelagos is paradise. Tabu is a love story in the most idyllic place imaginable, directed by the man who gave us Sunrise, and neverthelessit’s a bleak, saddening one.
The film would be the last in Murnau’s incredible career, before he died in a car accident a week before its premiere, closing a fantastic filmography with a melancholic and offbeat (yet perfectly fitting) work of art. It was an offbeat effort because here, the consecrated German Expressionist collaborated with documentary legend Robert Flaherty, famous for his pioneering Nanook of the North. As such, it has a feeling of preservation, of a representation of Tahiti before full takeover.
Much like the cold Northern Quebec to Nanook, Bora Bora is a land true to its traditions and to a distinct vision on human life. It’s a very warm, care-free and luminous place, unprecedented for a Murnau film: the complexities of Western tradition make way for a life of sunbathing, swimming, fishing and rowing, harmonic and complete. As such, this a unique movie experience, mixing one’s ethnographic ambitions with the impactful lyricism of another’s; at once, it’s a Hollywood drama and a straightforward documentary. Notably, the film states that it only used locals for the production, including “a few half-castes and Chinese”.
But the narrative and chief stylistic choices are ultimately Murnau’s, and the story is a familiar revisit to his favorite narrative of the challenged couple. Matahi (Matahi) and Reri (Anne Chevalier) are in love with each other when she is (as they see it) tragically chosen to replace a recently deceased high priestess, and as such cannot be wed, touched or “looked upon with desire”. They decide to escape to a colonized island, but they’re found by the old warrior Hitu, and once again they suffer from the risk of never being with each other again. One can only imagine an autobiographical touch from the director; without and within the film’s narrative, there’s an escape that seems like a fruitful solution but turns out not to be.
It’s a different story from those of Sunrise and City Girl, where the couple tested under new and threatening conditions has multiple layers, and in both of them the couple triumphs at the end in miraculous Hollywoodian twists. In Tabu, the love between Matahi and Reri is more of a given, and is represented in symbolic pictures of their relationship (a long celebratory dance ritual, a final rescue endeavor gone wrong) and a contextual presentation of their lives. Arguably due to Flaherty’s influence, the film spends a great part of its running time showing new and striking images of Tahiti, with the traditional Murnau stylistic touches: the dance rituals, the banter near the waterfalls, the rowing and the diving for pearls, and the climbing of palm trees are all reminiscent of his lyricism.
Murnau’s camera had tracked through artificial swamps and wheat fields, across buildings and streets, up and down elevators and haunted castles, and here it runs and swims. Part of what makes the cinematography in his films so impressive is that, counterintuitively as a German Expressionist and a great filmmaker of fantasies, he was the kind of filmmaker who didn’t fake the shots he wanted on screen. There is a great sense of presence in the camerawork, as if the camera could go anywhere it wants and follow whoever it wants to, and a physicality of its movements that adds to a very subjective experience and manages to be immersive without compromising the clarity of the shots (unlike today’s shaky-cam cinematography, which aims for realism but damages the immersion).
This enforces the sense of wonder the setting can provide, but also the isolation Matahi and Reri feel when forced to flee from the island they used to cherish. The music begins lively, with excerpts from Chopin and Smetana, besides the drumbeats from the music the Tahitians play themselves, but it is also tragic as the film progresses. The cinematography is bright and gorgeous, but the underlying message is dark and hopeless. There is lyricism in the love of Matahi and Reri, and the same in their defeat. And with this strange, troubling film, Murnau finished his mark on movie history, with a bang and a long silence.
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas
Director: F.W. Murnau and Robert J. Flaherty
Cast: Matahi, Anne Chevalier, Hitu, Bill Bambridge
Academy Awards: Best Cinematography
Sight and Sound’s Top 250: #171 (tied)