"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). 

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