F. W. Murnau did not make it to the premiere of Tabu. A week prior he had died in a car crash, aged 42. In his tragically short career he had established himself as one of the greatest directors of the silent era – in both Germany and the US – with films such as ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) and ‘Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans’ (1927).
The plot of Tabu shares some basic elements with Sunrise, Murnau’s greatest film and arguably even silent cinema’s. It is the story of a young couple, madly in love; a love forbidden by their society, so they are forced to run away. But where Sunrise was set in contemporary America, about a couple running away to a metropolis, Tabu is set on the other side of the world, on an (initially) utopian Pacific island.
His final film is a difficult one to categorise. It blurs lines between documentary and fiction. This has been something of a trend in modern cinema, but it is done here for completely different reasons. Alarm bells start ringing during the opening credits, when Robert J. Flaherty’s name jumps out, as a writer. And Flaherty was a man who did tend to ‘write’ his documentaries. In Nanook Of The North (1922), a similarly ethno-fictional film, Flaherty ‘studies’ a group of Inuit and shows them using traditional hunting tools such as spears. Except they had been using guns for years. But Flaherty did not feel that this was romantic enough, so made them use out-dated methods for the camera.
And Tabu’s opening scenes do have the same feel as Nanook – that feeling of “Oh look! Let’s look at a foreign people and their odd customs!” It feels faked for the camera. We are seeing a society that, if it ever existed, has not done for several decades. Dozens of people wear flowery headdresses, frolic in palm leaves and glide down water slides. It is (to modern eyes) a horribly, stereotyped view of a paradisiacal Pacific island. It is therefore not too much of a surprise to discover that they opening scenes were in fact directed by Flaherty himself, before he had a falling out with Murnau and left.
However, even as the film goes on, we see further scenes of tribal dancing and more hollowed-out canoes than you could dream of. The central couple decide they are sick of these racist stereotypes, so run away to continue their illicit affair. It was very lucky they did, because if they had stayed any longer, they would have discovered they were actually on Skull Island and King Kong would have rolled up causing mischief.
The film is split into two halves. And unlike the first, the second half, ‘Paradise Lost’, actually has plot and tension, and, most importantly, a darkness to the mood. The couple are exploited by ‘civilised’ society, duped because of their innocence. The woman is haunted by a vision of the old tribesman hunting them down. And the ending is perfectly tragic.
It is this second half that brings an air of quality to the project, and is clearly the reason the film is rightly remembered. While shots of the idyllic setting are excellently framed throughout the film, they work best in contrast to the growing urban threat as the film develops.
A few quick side notes. Firstly, the score by Hugo Riesenfeld is excellent, particularly for its era. Secondly, for a film from 1931, there are an extraordinary number of semi-naked women. (This actually furthers the idea, in the opening scenes, that this is a documentary and ‘realistically’ shot ‘au-naturel’.) And lastly, when Steven Spielberg was making ‘Jaws’ (1975), he probably didn’t lose too much sleep trying to improve on the shark effects in this film.
In the end, if watched as a documentary, or even a docu-drama, Tabu does not work. It feels too forced and false. But if seen as a drama, albeit one set in a pastiched, ridiculous setting, then the second half of the film does raise it to excellence. It will sadly remain a great mystery to know what may have happened if Murnau had not been stifled by compromise with Flaherty, as it may have been another masterpiece to add to his all-too-short career.