Review: Tabu – A Story of the South Seas

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

Year: 1931

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)

Review: Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was a director of universal stories; simple stories, with not too many characters, that reached for the skies in their straightforward plots and elaborate camerawork. He called his Nosferatu a Symphony of Horror, his Faust a German Folktale, and later he would travel across the world to make of his Tabu a Story of the South Seas. He made films about city girls and countrymen, angels and demons, good and evil. But it’s in his Song of Two Humans, about a man and a woman who love each other, that Murnau has his supreme achievement, a masterpiece in emotional and visual heights that is considered by some the Great American Film.

The Man (George O’Brien) and The Woman (Janet Gaynor, in an Oscar-winning performance) once loved each other, but now they’re distancing themselves: she stays at home and take care of the baby son, while he succumbs to the charms of The Woman from the City. This woman convinces The Man to drown his wife and move to the city, but at the last minute he can’t bring himself to do it. And so, with love lost and regained, they spend the day together, rediscovering what they once had, finding out a new path back to the same journey they were taking together once.

It’s the story of a second first date, and as such everything feels new once again for the two lovebirds: the man’s shabby hair caressed by the small fingers of the woman; the cuddly eyes of the woman, spelling out millions of emotions in seconds; being held in each other’s arms, and swinging around like the only two people in the only world they now know; the bright lights and the endless sights of the city, all singing and dancing and drinking (but just a little) only to return home by the end of the day; the awkwardness of making mistakes together, and the simple joy of learning from them together. living life as it is: “sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet”.

Perhaps the woman forgives her husband a bit too soon, and perhaps we should take more into account his violent behavior, but I believe that for this old classic these flaws are rendered minute by the emotional and visual depth the film provides. Sunrise is not just about love, but about a kind of romantic love that could only survive under those circumstances, and magically does. The love between the man and the woman is part of their life in the country: innocent, simple, a bit too sweet. And yet it exists, to the surprise of the people they meet in the city, and of course, to the woman from the city herself. It’s a kind of love that belongs in a time and space seemingly unreachable, and it is, in its form, transcendental.

This feeling of changing times, of a new reality contrasting with another one that slowly becomes unreachable, is essential to better perceive and understand the film: released in 1927, the golden year of the silent era, it came to theaters two weeks before The Jazz Singer instantly turned silent movies in Hollywood obsolete. Sunrise was one of the first films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects, and Murnau puts this to good use: while the characters still don’t talk, the music deliberately works to substitute moments of dialogue, such as when the man cries for help and we can hear the instruments themselves crying for him. Other Foley effects of trains, cars, animals and human voices add to a sense of environment, without ever becoming (or needing to be) an actual talkie.

Another element of the film that contrasts past and future, besides the obvious country/city dichotomy, is the gorgeous cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. As in The Last Laugh, the camera moves as if unbound by notions of weight and distance, tracking across all directions, and here this is taken to a new level, gliding through all kinds of terrain from city streets to swamps and watercourses, thanks to highly elaborate sets that mimic the marshes and fields of the real countryside with the poetic license of Murnau’s German Expressionism.

It’s the merging of these images, however, that truly resonates and creates an almost surreal feeling. With the use of double exposure, which combines static and moving shots, or even one moving shot to another, the characters seem to go outside the tangible world, almost as if their love went to another dimension at times. A walk down the street suddenly becomes a honeymoon stroll through a tunnel of green fields. A lustful conversation near the lake becomes an opportunity to envision an endless travel though the city’s long and bright avenues.

But ultimately, Sunrise is still this Song of Two Humans, and not much else. It’s about the pain, grief and forgiveness so visible in the woman, and the hate turned into redemptive love so visible in the man. It’s about a kiss in the middle of the street, and a tipsy attempt to get off the dinner table. It’s about how two lovers who can’t keep a serious face to take a photograph, and dance to an entire crowd while thinking only about themselves. It’s about the terrible things we do to the ones we love, and the immense regret that comes when we come to our senses. It’s about ourselves, everyone of us, anyone who has ever fallen in love, in our darkest and in our most beautiful moments.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Year: 1927

Director: F.W. Murnau

Cast: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing

Academy Awards: Best Unique and Artistic Picture; Best Actress; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction (nominated)

Sight and Sound’s Top 250: #5

Review: The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann)

Throughout most of the silent era, cinema behaved within the constraints of a strict two-dimensional approach to composition and editing, submissive to the notion of the proscenium arch of the theaters. Some directors explored cinematic tricks like double exposure, stop-motion, and altered frame rates, like Victor Sjöström and George Méliès; others gave a shot or two at moving the camera, like D.W. Griffith and Giovanni Pastrone; still, cinema was a mostly theatrical art. Which is why F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh is one of the most influential movies in film history: it blew that proscenium arch away, and with an unprecedented use of the camera, gave movies another dimension.

And despite its age, it is still an impressive achievement: in the very first shot, the camera, which had barely moved until then, comes down from an elevator, crosses the hotel’s main hall and goes through a revolving door into the street. This freedom of movement follows throughout the entire film: the camera crosses entire sets, spins around the room, goes through glass panels and follow its characters wherever they go. It created a whole new way of making movies, made possible with the “entfesslte Kamera” or “unchained camera technique” made especially for the film, and it would inspire everything from the subjective camera of Hitchcock and Antonioni to the camera acrobatics of Kalatozov and Iñárritu.

Emil Jannings, one of the major stars of the silent era (who would eventually star in a number of Nazi propaganda films and later become unemployable) stars a big, tall old man who works as the doorman for a famous hotel; he takes pride in his function and is admired in his community as a man of distinction. It’s all fine and dandy until Jannings is incapable of lifting a client’s suitcase and is replaced and demoted to a washroom job the next day. It’s a simple plot, and one that stretches out a bit, but it’s made very effective thanks to Murnau’s innovations, which transform a simple story of a doorman who loses his job into a cinematic visualization of his grief and humiliation.

It’s pure cinema, and one filled with meaning: so much of the doorman’s downfall can be read in Jannings’ face and posture, which go from proud and upright to desolate and arching almost instantly; so much of the sudden changescan be felt from the tracking shots that pan away from him out of the washroom in one moment, or in another moment, from him, across his boss’ room, to the abandoned uniform, glowing in its abandon. This kind of meaning conveyed through camera move is now a given, but rarely does it feel so fresh, especially since the standard procedure is to move the camera “only when necessary” in classical filmmaking. After all, in the silent era, the artist couldn’t really on dialogue.

The result is radically subjective cinema, giving a visual impression of the world as his bewildered self sees and feels. The camera practically becomes a character in itself – actors can actually be seen trying to keep out of its way. Added to the Expressionistic impulses that drove Murnau and all of German cinema in the 20s and his traditional interest in the downfall of man – as seen in Phantom, Faust, Sunrise and others -, The Last Laugh is not so much a moment of humiliation but a complete breakdown of the doorman’s life, and a telling portrait of the social insecurity of Weimar-era Germany.

The uniform he so proudly wears from home to work and back is like military attire, separating him from a “civilian world” that happens to be his own. More importantly, it gives him the status of a place where he can be easily replaced – the luxurious hotel full of rich guests and bright lights – that contrasts with the one he lives in, a bare-bones building block of grey rectangles and shabby rooms and hallways. The uniform makes him, and this making is his life; when he loses it, in the fashion of a military discharge, he becomes dispensable in both environments, which were, in a way, always indifferent to who he really was.

Uncommon for silent films, The Last Laugh doesn’t have intertitles, save for a few diegetic insert shots and one significant intertitle near the end, which provides an alternate conclusion to the story. At first it seems like a happy ending, and it has been heavily criticized as a low point in an otherwise flawless film, disrupting the film’s bleak atmosphere entirely and giving in to studio interference. I wouldn’t want to get much into it (and spoil a 93 year-old film), but Murnau, who was guilty of damaging his films with interludes (Faust), delivers here, no pun intended, the last laugh: this ending isn’t a consolation prize, but a joke on happy endings themselves, going so over the top in the doorman’s resurrection that it becomes the very opposite of what it looks like. His life as he knew now over, one can only see the naivete of his imagination, picturing an unrealistic world for the lack of any help from reality itself. As in Nosferatu, to be in a silent film is not to be able to cry out your problems.

The Last Laugh is bravura filmmaking, and this kind of enterprise is uncommon even for today standards; most films have either gone the way of the classical, seamless approach or the over-the-top approach, sound and fury with no semblance of artistic meaning. But in the hands of a great filmmaker, innovation and meaning walk hand to hand. Murnau, under the circumstances he found himself in, had to invent new ways to make character, and camera action, legible to the viewer. And that is what made him one of the defining pioneers of the silent era: he made the best he could with what he had.

The Last Laugh

Year: 1924

Director: F.W. Murnau

Cast: Emil Jannings

Sight and Sound’s Top 250: #127 (tied)

Review: Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror

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Before vampires were elegant, flamboyant characters; before they were werewolf hunters; before they glew under the sun, or burned violently at the sight of it; before they came in all shapes, sizes and genders; before Buffy, Blacula and Vampire’s Kiss; and even before the first Dracula movie, vampires in film were ugly, crawling, rat-like humanoids, whose voice we never got to hear, whose movements were too deliberate and unrealistic, and whose cursed nature made them too unlikable to feel properly modern. F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is unlike most other iterations of history’s most iconic modern monster, and perhaps for this reason it is also one of the best. Continue reading

August 2016: Stuff I Watched

Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999)

Three Kings is many good and necessary things at once. It’s a film that really understands action, not only making an oddly satisfying mixture of art-house anti-war movie with a blockbuster adventure flick but also excelling at depicting said action with precision and grace – the way it cuts and uses slow motion is probably one of the finest examples of modern action film-making that compensates for much of the stylish action of recent years that doesn’t really add up to anything; it’s modern action done right. It’s a thought-provoking film, and a very accessible one, that kind of brings an entirely new solution to the age-old difficulty that directors have with bringing a message to the right people with the right vehicle. And it’s a really good movie, and the kind of good movie that pushes you to revisit the filmography of a director you didn’t regard all that highly. Continue reading

July 2016 in a nutshell: stuff I watched

Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, 2015)

Based, on the Greek comedy Lysistrata, where Athenian and Spartan women go on a sex strike to stop the ongoing war, Chi-Raq is a very necessary 2015 movie that was criminally overlooked, despite being politically relevant, stylish, beautifully acted and very topical. Guess that happens when Amazon takes hold of your movie and you get criticized for what you did before they even get a look at it. Continue reading

June 2016 in a nutshell: stuff I watched

Hello! It’s been a while, again. At this point I question myself whether I’ll make anything other than these monthly summaries in the near future, since I was sure I was going to move forward with my Great Directors series, finishing Eisenstein and going all the way to Godard (I even have practically finished reviews of October and Alexander Nesvky!) But for quite a few reasons, I have decided to push the series to January so that I can spend some time working on Werner Herzog’s new Masterclass (yes), among other things.

June was a lot of the same: many revisits to the local art-house theaters and to increasing DVD collection (I have about 90 movies of my own at this point including some beautiful Criterion boxes).  Continue reading