"Tabu" - F. W. Murnau (1931)

F. W. Murnau, perhaps the greatest German Expressionist filmmaker, shifted to Hollywood in 1927 at the invitation of producer William Fox and closed out his too-brief career there.   Prior to his tragic death in 1931, he made two classics there that stand as monuments to the wondrous visual possibilities of silent films – Sunrise (1927) and Tabu (aka Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, 1931).  Although Sunrise is generally considered to be Murnau’s masterpiece, Tabu has also always been highly regarded [1,2,3], and indeed filmmaker Eric Rohmer is said to have labelled Murnau as cinema's greatest filmmaker and Tabu his greatest film [4,5].

Both of these films are about love that is threatened by dark forces, but the natures of those dark forces are different. In Sunrise” the threatening forces come from within – the dark almost uncontrollable passions of lust and revenge inside the male protagonist (“The Man” in that film).  In Tabu the threatening force is external to the protagonists.  Despite this distinction between the internal and external natures of the threats, both of the threats have a generic quality that makes them understandable to everyone.

The production of Tabu was begun as an artistic collaboration between Murnau and Robert J. Flaherty a pioneer in documentary ethnographic narratives (e.g. Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926)), and the two of them co-wrote the screenplay for their film.  However, as location shooting commenced in Tahiti, artistic and personal differences arose between Flaherty and Murnau, led to Flaherty’s eventual withdrawal from the production.  Nevertheless, when the film is viewed today, it can be seen to bear the aesthetic earmarks of both of these artists, particularly with respect to the opening sequences of Tabu, which were shot by Flaherty. 

To economize on production costs for the film shooting in Tahiti, Murnau used mostly local actors and a local production crew.  This being a silent film, it is told entirely without dialogue, although some diegetically-internal written textual messages appear that convey important information for the storyline.  In addition the music composed by Hugo Riesenfeld is synchronised with the visuals and sometimes features sounds and tones that have diegetic relevance.

The story of Tabu concerns the love between two Polynesian natives in the South Seas some time ago and how their love is interfered with by external social forces.  It is partitioned into two parts, “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost”; but I would say that the narrative roughly comprises four divisions.

1.  Paradise
The film opens with young men on the small Pacific island of Bora Bora joyfully engaged in their native practice of spear-fishing.  One of the men, Matahi, seems to be particularly adept in this activity. They later frolic in the nearby waterfalls associated with a local stream, where they encounter some young women bathing together.  When Matahi breaks up a fight that suddenly arose between two of the girls, he finds himself comforting one of the two combatants, Reri (played by Anne Chevalier), who was getting the worst of it. It soon becomes evident that Matahi and Reri are naturally attracted to each other.

The entire picture here in this first section is that of innocent “noble savages” living joyfully and harmoniously in a pristine natural environment.

2.  A Dark Spectre Comes
The happy revelry of these young people is interrupted by the exciting appearance of a sailing ship that arrives at Bora Bora.  Onboard the ship is a stern old warrior, Hitu, who bears a message from the ruling chief of Fanuma. The message declares that the woman who was their tribal Sacred Virgin has just died, and that this high and honourable position is now to be filled by a resident of Bora Bora, Reri.  But this position comes with a high price – the Sacred Virgin, who is supposed to epitomise and symbolise virtue, dignity, and honour, must be kept eternally away from the possible lustful gazes of men.  In other words, she is to become a prisoner sacrificed to the superstitions surrounding the artificial notions of objective dignity and honour. 

While the locals rejoice in the appointment, Reri weeps.  But at a local festival celebrating the event, Reri has the opportunity to dance, and she and Matahi seize the brief opportunity to dance seductively together.  Afterwards Hitu takes Reri onboard the ship for a lifetime of incarceration.

However, at night Matahi sneaks out to the not-yet-departed ship and secretly absconds with Reri.  The locals then propose a willing substitute for Reri, but Hitu remains implacable.  He will settle for noone other than Reri.

Hitu’s never-changing dour expression of inexorable demand makes him a symbol of annihilation.  He is the Grim Reaper.  This casts the rest of the film as a contest between human love and death itself.

3.  Matahi and Reri Together    
Almost starved, Matahi and Reri manage to get away and make it to another island in French Polynesia, where the attraction of the pearl trade has led to a greater presence of Western civilization.  This offers the young couple the opportunity of possible escape from the restrictions of their superstitious tribal society.  But it also introduces new complications.

The athletic Matahi quickly establishes himself as an expert peal diver.  But his ignorance of how money works leads him to assume an enormous debt at the conclusion of a party he threw for his new island community which featured heaps of expensive champagne.

And when a ship arrives at their new island, it is revealed that, in order to reduce local tensions, the French colonial authorities are seeking the return of Matahi and Reri to Bora Bora.  The two of them just manage to escape capture when Matahi bribes the arresting French constable with a pearl he still has.  Hitu’s grim, implacable image seems always to be lurking around every corner, though.  He tracks them down and surreptitiously leaves a warning message for Reri: she must surrender herself to Hitu within three days, or Matahi will be killed.

Reri hides Hitu’s message from her beloved and now seeks for them to escape to the more cosmopolitan port of Papeete.  But they are blocked from buying tickets by Matahi’s unpaid debt.

4.  Closing In  
The relentless spectre, Hitu, returns to their hut at night and is about to kill the sleeping Matahi when Reri implores him to desist.  She promises to go with Hitu later in order to save Matahi’s life. The Grim Reaper, Hitu, then leaves her with Matahi still asleep.

At this point the narrative switches to parallel action. Matahi, who still doesn’t know about Hitu’s immanent presence, wakes up and now realizing the monetary value of pearls, goes off to a dangerous lagoon guarded by a man-eating shark (and therefor declared "tabu" by the authorities) in order to hunt for a big pearl that can secure their escape.  Meanwhile Reri, ready to depart, writes a tear-stained note to her beloved:
“I have been so happy with you for more than I deserved.

The love you have given me I will keep to the last beat of my heart.

Across the great waters I will come to you in your dreams, when the moon spreads its  path on the sea.

Off in the lagoon, Matahi just manages to secure his desired large pearl before the man-eating shark can get him.  But when he triumphantly returns to their hut, he sees Reri missing and Hitu sailing in a small boat out to sea.  Knowing that Hitu has kidnapped Reri, Matahi desperately swims out after them.  He almost catches up with Hitu, but exhaustion finally overcomes him.  He drowns in the sea as the film ends.

Despite its naturalistic setting and performing troupe, Tabu features both romantic (contributed to by Flaherty) and expressionistic (from Murnau) elements that go beyond the naturalistic.  And, in particular, it is Murnau’s expressionist flavour that resonates with the viewer.  This is the story of innocent and sincere love that is, like Romeo and Juliet, unjustly obstructed by traditional prejudices.  And the modernist influences from French colonialism only becloud things for our protagonists.  Western economic notions of monetary expenses and accumulated debt are only entanglements for these innocents, and French colonial policies of laissez-faire left the two of them unprotected from harsh and backward superstitious practices.

Murnau presents these social menaces as embodied in the almost demonic form of Hitu, who looms over the story like a dark shadow.  I have characterized Murnau’s Sunrise as actually a horror film, due to its expressionistic rendering of destructive passions.  And on the surface, Tabu may at first seem quite different.  Here we have two lovers who are the essence of innocence.  What threatens them is external to them and entirely beyond their comprehension.  But Hitu is not just some individual external menace; he seems to embody the dark side of life itself, i.e. death. For our two innocent lovers there seems to be no escape from his relentless pursuit.  Again we have a horror show, but this time painted by Murnau on a naturalistic canvas.

  1. Mordaunt Hall, ”THE SCREEN; Mr. Marnau's Last Picture”, The New York Times,  (19 March 1931).  
  2. Dennis Schwartz, "Brilliantly simple lyrical  film was shot on location in Tahiti", Ozus' World Movie Reviews, (17 March 2013).    
  3. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “Tabu (1931)”, Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).      
  4. Gordon Thomas, “Bright Sights: Recent DVDs: Tabu; French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris, 1923-1928", Bright Lights Film Journal, (31 July 2013).    
  5. Dennis Grunes, “TABU (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, 1931)”, Dennis Grunes, (14 February 2008). 

Tani Basu

Films of Tani Basu:
  • "Kabuliwala"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 7 – Tani Basu (2015)

Debatma Mandal

Films of Debatma Mandal:
  • "Detective"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 6 – Debatma Mandal (2015)
  • "Punishment"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 8 – Debatma Mandal (2015)

“Punishment”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Punishment” (“Shasti”, 1893) [1] was the basis for the eighth episode of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015).  The series was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, but this particular episode was directed by Debatma Mandal. The story concerns how a domestic crime that erupts in the collective household of two brothers and their wives is addressed .

Although Tagore’s stories were separately written over a wide timespan and were not linked with respect to their content, the series creators’ penchant for linking up the series episodes led to a dramatic connection between this episode and the previous one, “Kabuliwala”.  The young woman Mini turns out to be a key dramatic personage in both “Kabuliwala” and “Punishment”.  But this linkage is only an incidental and distracting artefact, and the two stories told are in other respects quite distinct [2].

One thing notable about this episode is the high quality of the acting, particularly that for the role of the older sister-in-law, Radha. Although the acting over the course of this series is generally very good, it reaches a high point on this occasion. They make the dramatic events in this story come alive with feeling.

The story of “Punishment” begins by depicting the married life of two brothers, Devendra and Upendra, who jointly operate the thriving tea plantation that they inherited from their father.  Devendra is married to Radha, an incessantly crabby nagger who makes life difficult for the people around her.  Younger brother Upendra has recently married Mini, who as a child in the previous episode had been the object of the Kabuliwala’s attentions, and she is now struggling to accommodate and fit in with her bad-tempered sister-in-law.  But Radha persistently complains that Mini is not conforming to the norms of a proper housewife and attending to her  domestic chores.  However, Upendra comforts his sensitive young wife by reminding her that he is madly in love with her and that she will always be the center of his devotion.

Despite the semi-turmoil on the domestic scene, the two brothers seem to be enjoying prosperity with their tea plantation operation.  However, one day a British attorney comes to inform Devendra that the brothers have lost the title to their tea plantation property.  It quickly appears that this is a coercive swindle, and this passage suggests that exploitative elements within the British Raj corruptly manipulated their imposed legal mechanisms to routinely deprive “brown-skinned” natives of their rightful property.  The brothers are powerless to stop the takeover, and they suddenly find themselves in poverty.

Note that this sequence of events depicting British duplicitous exploitation of innocent Indians was not part of Tagore’s original story, which depicted the two brothers just as common day laborers [1]. But I think it is an interesting addition to the narrative, which is, after all, about societal norms, guilt, and punishment. 

Anyway, this situation that the two brothers now face naturally distresses them, particularly older brother Devendra, who had managed their affairs and is now struggling to get them out of debt.  And his disturbed state is only exacerbated by his wife Radha’s perpetually bitchy complaints.  One day when he encounters one of her storms of vituperation, he loses his temper.   He angrily smacks Radha with a vase, and she unexpectedly falls backward out of their second-story window to her death.

Devendra, Upendra, and Mini are all horrified by what has happened and are in a state of shock.  But  Upendra recovers himself enough to tell Mini to stay silent when the authorities arrive and let him do all the talking.  When the police come, Upendra tells them that it was Mini who quarreled with Radha and killed her.  Mini is stunned to hear her husband say this, but she dutifully remains silent.  Upendra reassuringly whispers to her that she should not worry and that he will take care of everything to keep her safe from harm.

After the police arrest Mini, Upendra, in justification of his actions, confides to the still stunned Devendra that he knows that he can always get another wife, but he could never get another brother.  Such are the mores of many traditional societies, according to which blood family ties and fealty always take precedence over those towards a woman who has joined a family by marriage.  For Upendra, Mini is a beautiful toy that can be replaced.

Now in jail, Mini stays loyal to her husband’s command and remains silent when she is questioned.  She recalls her father’s adjurations when she got married that now she must selflessly devote herself to her new husband and his family that she has joined. 

When the court case takes place, Mini is accused of murder and warned that she faces execution if what her husband has said is correct.  Still the stunned woman holds her tongue.  Now finally overcome with guilt at what he is causing, Upendra rises from his seat in the audience and announces that he, himself, committed the murder.  Upon hearing his brother’s sacrificial confession, Devendra then stands up and insists that it was he who committed the murder. 

The judge now has three conflicting accounts as to who committed the murder.  But he is procedurally oriented and has only one person before him who has been formally accused of the crime.  He turns to Mini and asks her to give her account as to what really happened.  Again the stunned girl, still confused about her proper duties, remains silent.  So the judge, taking Mini’s silence as a confession of guilt, condemns the woman to be hanged.  The story ends with Mini silently and tearfully facing the gallows noose.

This is a sad story about justice and punishment.  An accidental death has occurred, and “justice” demands punishment.  Mini has been made to feel guilty and obliged throughout her marriage, and in the end she assumes the guilt for a crime she didn’t commit.  Given the misogonystic social norms under which she lived, the deck was always stacked against her. 

The ending here differs somewhat from Tagore’s story, in which the accused wife, in order to punish her husband with guilt for falsely casting the blame on her, publicly proclaims that she did commit the murder.  At the end of that story, the condemned wife bitterly rejects her husband before she is executed.  I like the ending here in this filmed episode better.  It makes the woman’s sad fate even more poignant.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore , “Punishment”, (1893), Shawkat Hussain (trans., November 2016), Gitanjali & Beyond. 1. 203. 10.14297/gnb.1.1.203-213.
  2. Durgas, “Punishment – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (4)”, Writersbrew, (6 August 2015).   

“Battleship Potemkin” - Sergei Eisenstein (1925)

Even though it is not shown very often these days, Sergei M. Eisenstein’s silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925) has long been regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.  It was ranked 11th on the British Film Institute’s 2012 poll of international film critics [1] and ranked 75th on the BFI’s 2012 poll of international film directors [2].  Its fame rose quickly despite the fact that is was not a big hit at the box-office when it was released in Eisenstein’s native Russia, and its distribution elsewhere was often restricted due to the film’s propagandistic message promoting communist revolution. 

Eisenstein was only twenty-seven when he made Battleship Potemkin, which was his second feature film, following his similarly politically-intoned first feature, Strike (1925).  He went on to make a number of films over his varied directing career (see for example his Alexander Nevsky, 1938), but his lasting fame rests largely on Battleship Potemkin and on his subsequent film-theoretical writings [3,4].  Indeed Battleship Potemkin came to be seen as the exemplary showcase of Eisenstein’s ideas about film aesthetics and production. Thus the film soon achieved iconic status.

Eisenstein was particularly concerned with formulating a theoretical foundation for the relatively new medium of film expression, for which the crafted temporal arrangement of sequenced images was a process he referred to as “montage”.  Like his young contemporary film theoretician Lev Kuleshov, who taught at the Soviet National Film School, Eisenstein was aware of and concerned with the fact that a viewer’s perception and understanding of an individual film image (i.e. a shot) is very much influenced by the immediately preceding images, which provide a narrative context for the interpretation of that shot.  The synergistic effects of successive contrasting images on the viewer were what Eisenstein referred to as “collisions” [5,6].  By injecting and manipulating these collisions, a filmmaker could expressively convey his or her thematic message and heighten its dramatic impact.

The story of Battleship Potemkin concerns a real event that took place in 1905 during the Russian revolution of that year.  Sailors onboard the said battleship mutinied against the officers on the ship in June of that year, and the event was later hailed by Lenin as dramatic evidence concerning how the military could rise up and support a people’s revolution.  Eisenstein was commissioned by the Russian Communist government to make a film for the 20th anniversary of that historic event that would celebrate its revolutionary important.  The highly fictionalized account that Eisenstein went on to make of those events was thus intended to be an instrument of government propaganda and not so much concerned with historical accuracy.  In this respect Eisenstein visualized these events as a clash of general social forces rather than as a more customary  narrative depicting the conflict between key individual agents.

So when students of film look at Battleship Potemkin now, they are often interested in seeing how Eisenstein’s filmmaking ideas were manifested in his politicized account.  The film’s story is divided into five distinct acts, each of which has its own emotional message.

1.  Men and Maggots
The first act is devoted to a presentation of the unsatisfactory conditions of the sailors onboard the battleship.  It is clear early on that the sailors, who are symbolic of the Russian working class, are treated like dogs.  One sailor, Vakulinchuk, is seen urging his fellow abused shipmates to join with the popular revolution that was taking place at the time.  Finally the sailors erupt in complaints about the worm-infested meat they are being fed.  In response to their complaints, the stuffy ship’s doctor  assures them that the crawly creatures they see on the meat are only maggots, not worms, and that they should go ahead and eat the borscht that is made from the meat.  But the sailors refuse to eat it.

The message for this act is suffering injustice on the part of the upper classes towards the lower class in a corrupted system. Throughout this act, the sailors are not shown as individuals but as members of a suppressed class.  The officers shown are uniformly haughty and disdainful of the sailors, whom they see as beneath them.  Thus the oppressors are individualized, while the oppressed are more abstractly presented.

This is the weakest act in the film, because the elements in this section are not effectively organized as a narrative.

2.  Drama on the Quarterdeck
When the ship Commander Golikov learns about the insubordination of the borscht-spurning sailors, he orders everyone up on deck and summarily commands that about twenty randomly selected sailors be executed by firing squad.  To symbolize the generic aspect of these chosen victims, Eisenstein has the officers cover them with a tarpaulin as the armed men line up in front of them to shoot them. 

Just as they are about to shoot, Vakulinchuk shouts out to the firing squad members, “Brothers!  Who are you shooting at?”  The armed men lower their guns in disobedience of their orders, and a full-scale insurrection quickly ensues.  The sailors soon succeed in taking over control of the ship, and they kill all the ship’s officers by throwing them overboard.  During the melee, however, the heroic Vakulinchuk is shot and becomes a martyr.

One wonders how this mutiny could have been executed without some planning, but no such scenes are presented.   

The overall message for this act is righteous revenge and murderous hatred towards the oppressors.

3.  The Dead Man Calls Out
The pace of the film now slows and becomes mournful.  When the Potemkin arrives in the Odessa harbor, Vakulinchuk’s corpse is loaded onto the pier, and it quickly becomes a shrine symbolizing his martyrdom.  Crowds of sympathetic people paying mournful homage to the corpse are soon whipped into a frenzy of anger and hatred towards their czarist oppressors. 

The increased use of closeups on individual faces in this act moves the focus more to the human level.  The overall message and tone in this act is still primarily that of righteous hatred – but towards a class, rather than towards individuals.

4.  The Odessa Steps
The memorable Odessa Steps act begins with the people now joyfully coming to greet the Potemkin, many traveling out to the ship in the water on a flotilla of small boats.  A large crowd of well-wishers also streams continuously down an open concrete staircase that extends down to the water's edge.  But suddenly a group of armed guards from the Czar’s army appears at the top of the staircase and begins systematically shooting at the crowd, which includes many women and children.  The ensuing slaughter is graphically filmed and edited, with rapid cuts between the merciless soldiers and the suffering women and children.  An iconic image is that of an unguided baby carriage careening wildly down the staircase after the baby’s mother has been shot dead. 

The emphasis here is on the contrast (the “collision”) between the inhuman mechanization of the soldiers and the pathos of the vulnerable women and children being massacred.  Thus the message is that of agonized suffering cruelty at the hands of inhuman perpetrators.  Some critics have gone so far as suggesting that the cruel and machine-like soldiers are embodiments of the masculine principle, while the suffering victims, who draw our sympathies, are embodiments of the feminine [7].  (Note, though, that the film as a whole seems to appeal more to male viewers than female viewers [8].) 

In retaliation for this slaughter on the Odessa Steps, the Potemkin battleship in the harbor fires its cannons on the Czar’s government headquarters building.

5.  Rendezvous with the Squadron
The final act is all tense expectation and, like the previous act, is tightly edited.  The Potemkin’s rebellious sailors, knowing the Czar’s military will send a punitive squadron out to attack them, get ready for a deadly confrontation.  They make grim and careful preparations through the night to get ready for the battle.  When dawn arrives, they see a squadron of government destroyers, and the Potemkin presents to them a semaphore signal to “Join Us”.  At the last minute, just as hostile shots are about to be fired, the ships draw close enough for the Potemkin crew to see the sailors on the government ships cheering them.  They, too, are apparently ready to join the revolution.

So the message here is that of solidarity and the triumphant joining of forces to wage a common battle.

As the film proceeds through its five acts, the pace quickens and the momentum builds.  So the second half of the film is better than the first.  One element that deserves special mention is the cinematography of Eduard Tisse.  Even though the editing pace means that most camera shots are of short duration, they all seem carefully composed, many of them from high and low angles, for maximum atmospheric effect [7]. 

However, I feel that the film’s overall narrative suffers from a lack of individual focalization.  By focalization, I mean seeing things from the perspective of an individual participant in the story.  Most films have this kind of focalization over the course of the story presentation, and this goes beyond just point-of-view shots – we see what is happening from the perspective of an unseen witness (the camera) that is, to a certain extent, a silent partner of the character being focalized.  Thus we share that character’s field of view and only know what that character knows during that period of focalization.  Some films only focalize on one character throughout the course of the story, but most films will individually focalize on several characters before the story concludes.  In Battleship Potemkin there is almost no individual focalization, except briefly on the sailor Vakulinchuk and on a mother carrying her gunshot child.  Instead, the viewer’s narrative perspective is from a more scattered, global perspective that represents a “God’s eye view” of what is going on.  The overall effect is to reduce the viewer’s empathetic engagement and, in its stead, increase resentful alienation.

This avoidance of individual human sub-narratives is what makes Battleship Potemkin more of a visual disquisition than what we usually characterize as a story. Eisenstein’s intent was to evoke our support for the people collectively, rather than for any individual character in the narrative.  And the top-down message of this emotional disquisition is one celebrating hatred, revenge, and violent repudiation – essentially a basic pro-war message. In keeping with Marxist historical materialism, there are no spiritual or religious message invoked here.  In fact during the Potemkin mutiny, a prophet-like ship’s priest appears on deck; but he is dismissed by the rebellious sailors as a sham sorcerer.  Any notions of compassion, forgiveness, and love are nowhere to be seen in this work. The focus is on more primitive aggressive feelings. Thus the individual primitive emotive messages of the five acts:
  • suffering injustice, 
  • revenge, 
  • hatred, 
  • suffering cruelty, and 
  • joining a common war effort
 – all contribute to the film’s basic pro-conflict theme (it is no wonder that Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels admired this film [9]). 

So Battleship Potemkin stands as an excellent demonstration of how to use cinematic tools to fashion a work invoking and supporting our most violent passions.  But what has perhaps most fascinated people over the years since its release is Eisenstein’s underlying theory of cinematic “collisions” that can be used to evoke those strong passions.

  1. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  2. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).
  3. Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense, Jay Leyda (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1942). 
  4. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form, Jay Leyda, (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1949).
  5. Sergei Eisenstein, “Collision of Ideas”, (selection from "The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram”, Film Form, Jay Leyda (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1949/1957), pp. 37-40.), Film, A Montage of Theories, Richard Dyer MacCann (ed.), E. P. Dutton, (1966), pp. 34-37.
  6. Evelyn Gerstein, “Russia’s Film Wizard”, Theater Guild Magazine (February 1930), included in Introduction to the Art of the Movies, Lewis Jacobs, (ed.), (1960), pp. 134-139.
  7. Helen Grace, “1925: Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein)”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 85, (November 2017).   
  8. “Battleship Potemkin (1925) User Ratings”, IMDb, (28 February 2018).    
  9. “Battleship Potemkin”, Wikipedia, (26 February 2018).