F.W. Murnau is one of cinema’s greatest directors – a true pioneer of the art whose use of expressionism, story, structure, symbolism, metaphor and drive have created some of the most well-known and recognised images from the earliest period of cinematic history. His ‘free adaptation’ of Stoker’s Dracula is one of the most celebrated interpretations of the tale and, indeed, Nosferatu, is one of my personal favourite films as it defines horror and even now, over eighty years later, still has the power to enthral and shock. His last film, and the subject of this review, has many parallels with Nosferatu, though the theme of lovers succumbing to fate is a message within any number of his films – perhaps due to his own homosexuality, the metaphor of being trapped, or finding love only to have it tragically drowned by circumstance runs deep throughout. And tonight’s presentation is no different, despite the incredible locations, there is an ominous presence, a spectre, if you will, of tragedy – something that is even more fitting as he was never able to attend the premier due to his untimely death, an act that robbed the cinema of a huge talent. Ladies and gentlemen tonight’s feature is Tabu: A Story of the South Seas.
The film opens up to one of its most iconic images: an islander spearing a fish. It is, in fact, one of our main protagonists, Matahi, a young man, skilled with a spear and an exceptional diver. The opening chapter is titled ‘Paradise’ and is used to introduce the main characters and their plight – it is shot very idyllically with Floyd Crosby’s cinematography winning an Academy award for its sheer majesty. The entire film was shot on location on the South Sea islands of Bora Bora and Tahiti and it was Crosby’s skill and Murnau’s eye for an image using light and shade that managed to produce some evocative and sensual imagery. Not only is the location ‘paradise’ but the situations that our cast in is also – after catching the fish quota Matahi swims ashore along with his friends to flirt and play with the island girls, be it in pools of water or in the sand. Even the jealous, or envious, fight that breaks out between two girls cannot dampen the fever. Matahi has eyes for Reri (one of the girls involved in the altercation) and she too is very captivated by him – Murnau captures some wonderful imagery in these opening scenes, plenty of movement, moments of quiet, idyllic situations and lovers, in love, petting each other. These opening scenes truly set the scene of ‘paradise’ and are needed to set the correct tone, for very soon everything is about to change and the tragic tale that is about to unfold hits all the harder.
The sound of the alarm warns of the imminent arrival of the emissary’s ship, it moves slowly and silently through the water, as the villagers gather themselves in a frenzy of activity – this juxtaposition of movement against stillness evokes an eerie feeling, something sinister is approaching even if we don’t yet know what (see similar motifs in Nosferatu). Aboard the ship is Hitu bearing the news that the sacrificial virgin from the neighbouring island has met with an unfortunate accident and the chief has decreed that Reri, by virtue of her nobility and virginity, shall be the replacement – this news is greeted with acclaim by all except our tragic lovers whose fate is written on parchment and from which to rage against will only be folly. During the celebration (much of which included nudity that was excised from previous prints and has been restored here) there are other instances of movement, stillness and the sombre presence of death. Take the scene where Reri and Matahi dance together harking back to an earlier scene of the same – only here there is no freedom of expression, Matahi had to force his way in and whilst their love for each other is evident in their own expressions, once Hitu stands his simple stillness shocks the couple into a static embrace. His figure, much like Count Orloc stands for fate, death, inevitability or the end of joy and never is it more obvious than in this scene. Unable to contain himself, Matahi steals Reri away and they make their escape trying to avoid the ‘Tabu’ for Reri is now beyond the touch of mortal man and meant for the Gods. So ends the first chapter.
The second, much longer, chapter is titled ‘Paradise Lost’; these simple two words conveying much hidden meaning – the lovers are no longer at their home, the idyllic lifestyle is trodden on by the ‘civilised’ world and of course it is filled with the dread of inevitability. The two lovers have made their home on a now colonised island. Matahi, being the skilled diver that he is, soon finds himself well celebrated as the best on the island, however it is during these celebrations that he is taken advantage of as the greedy merchants get him to sign receipts plunging him further and further into debt – his knowledge of money being extremely limited. Such ideas were probably put into the film by co-producer/co-director (though in truth Murnau took on full directorial responsibilities) Robert J. Flaherty who had had dealings with the natural inhabitants and wanted to bring to the attention of the world the way they were being exploited. But it is with the arrival of Hitu that things really turn sour for our lovers, like a dark shadow his reach is long and he brings with him the full inevitability of their fate. This tale, as by now you can tell, does not end well as the bringer of doom (the harbinger of death) dictates, so too all must bend to his will – tragedy is life.
Murnau was extremely adept at using mirror images of scenes that show two very different sides; these are scattered throughout his filmic output and are very prevalent here: Matahi riding his boat out to meet the ship – riding his boat to catch up to Huti; rope unwinding as he dives for a pearl – rope being cut falling into the sea; Reri sliding down a waterfall in joy – Reri descending stairs defeated. All these scenes are virtually identical in their imagery but they convey very different messages and it is Murnau’s skill that allows us to readily identify with and understand the story elements. It’s long been known of Murnau’s dislike of inter-titles, he rarely uses them except to further ideas or convey information quickly – here in Tabu there are no inter-titles for speech at all, they only exist as writing, be it the Tabu Decree, the debt receipts or Police Constable's diary; and each time we see inter-titles they impart worsening information; Murnau is using the titles to hammer home the dread and the tragic nature of fate.
So the film is silent of language, but it is not a silent film, Hugo Riesenfeld’s wild and evocative score is filled with jungle beats, sweeping melodies, tragic melancholy and dark, brooding majesty. Image and sound are closely linked and never moreso than in ‘silent’ films with this score being of particular delight. Another astonishing feat was that there are no professional actors in the piece at all, everyone, even the leads, were native islanders picked due to their photogenic nature and limited acting ability – they were directed with ease and multiple takes were shot, and, since they had no reference point, their ‘acting’ is incredibly natural; they are, essentially, being themselves. This gives a very natural performance leading to an easy chemistry between the leads and a magical quality to Hitu the harbinger.
The tale is obviously a tragedy, and there is no happy ending – and perhaps the most tragic thing is that Murnau never got to see the premier of his last film due to his untimely death after a car accident. This casts a huge shadow over this already dark film, despite the light and airiness of the photography, it plays out with a sinister and sombre tone. There is much to see in the film, it is steeped in allegory and each viewing brings out richer and deeper meaning. I understand that black and white, ‘silent’ films may not be to everyone’s taste but some films transcend their limitations: Nosferatu certainly does, and Tabu is clearly another. Recommended.