The 1931 film Tabu begins with a disclaimer that reads, “Only native-born South Sea islanders appear in this picture with a few half-castes and Chinese.” This statement is something of a red flag for the viewer cognizant of the sins of old Hollywood visited upon those other than the melanin-impoverished. This is, after all, the era when Tom Mix duked it out with bloodthirsty “redskins,” where white adventurers crossed swords with the “Yellow Peril,” and where Tarzan, Fay Wray, and a horde of vaudeville comedians appeared in films with rolling-eyed “darkies,” as designated enemies or dubious comic relief. A film of this time featuring “pagans” of the South Pacific stands a good chance of being condescending at best, outright racist at worst.
This is also a film by F. W. Murnau, the director of the ur-horror film Nosferatu and, like his contemporaries Carl Dreyer and Fritz Lang, a consummate master of the angular and shadow-rife nightmare of German Expressionist cinema. It would seem that he is out of his depth in sun-dappled Polynesia.
Tabu, however, confounds expectations on both counts. At once a rich travelogue, solid adventure, and tragic romance, it is one of the great Last Gasps of the silent film. Rather than condescending to their subjects, Murnau and his writing partner Robert J. Flaherty—who made the classic documentary Nanook of the North, notable for its sympathetic and insightful look at the lives of the Inuits—crafted a vision of paradise lost that dazzles as it moves.
The story is simple, archetypal even. On the island of Bora-Bora, a young fisherman (Matahi, called The Boy here) encounters The Girl (Reri), the daughter of the island’s chieftain, at play with her friends. He is handsome, a young godling (the script describes him as such and his opening scene shows him magnificently casting a makeshift trident into the sea), and she is achingly beautiful. They fall instantly and madly in love, but their love is immediately star-crossed. A ship arrives bearing an envoy, the old warrior Hitu, from the “king of the islands” who decrees that because of her beauty and royal blood, Reri is to become a sacred virgin devoted to the old Polynesian gods. As such she is declared tabu, off-limits to all men. Any man who would woo her or even look upon her cockeyed courts death, which leaves the smitten Matahi right out.
Unable to stay away from each other, Matahi and Reri bolt in an outrigger canoe, crossing countless miles of open sea in search of another island and praying the tabu has short arms. They end up on a populated island controlled by the French colonial government and the Chinese merchant trade, where the natives earn their living diving for pearls. Matahi proves himself a gifted diver and it would seem the couple’s happiness is assured, except for two problems. One, the innocents have no real concept of money and during a celebration, Matahi blithely signs off on a bar tab for a couple of cases of champagne. And two, this island is one of the regular stops for the ship bearing Hitu, who is searching for the lovers with the cooperation of the French.
Hitu appears to Reri in the middle of the night, while Matahi sleeps, and warns her that she must return with him to take her divinely ordained place or he will kill Matahi for breaking the tabu. She informs Matahi that they must leave now but does not tell him why. He, on the other hand, does not tell her that he cannot buy passage off the island because of his bar debt; instead he conspires to sneak away and dive for pearls in an area itself declared tabu because of a gigantic man-eating shark who guards the oyster beds like some silent, monstrous sentinel.
Call it Paul Gaughin’s Romeo and Juliet.
The two natives who play the lovers are real finds: they are beautiful and they can act. Absent are the broad histrionics of most silent-film players; for amateurs Matahi and Reri deliver subtle, shaded performances that supercede the lack of audible dialogue (despite this being a silent, there are no dialogue cards and all exposition is handled through various letters written by the minor characters).
Even aside from the story, the film is escapism worth watching for its loving depiction of the South Seas. The unspoiled beauty of the islands comes through even in black and white, and everything—the sea, the pearls, the bodies of Matahi and Reri—has a silvery quality that positively shimmers. The present print of Tabu, long thought lost, was taken from a carefully preserved print found at the home of the film’s cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who won an Oscar for it, and restored by the film-preservation unit at UCLA. Between their efforts and the realization of DVD’s potential, Tabu is bright, vibrant, and virtually flawless.
This is not to say, however, that Murnau’s trademark creepiness plays no part in the film. As the tragedy sets in, several scenes are played at night, where carefully orchestrated shadows cast a pall over the lovers. Out of those shadows comes Hitu, dread servant of the gods, and he is, in his own way, as fearsome a creature as Nosferatu‘s Count Orlok. When I say he “appears” to Reri in the night, I mean he just appears, like a vengeful spirit, with deeply lined features and piercing eyes that hold no mercy. He disappears just as suddenly, except in one scene where he walks away from the terrified Reri and fades into the frangipani as if dissipating. Like the shark, Hitu seems to be less flesh-and-blood than an instrument of divine judgment, Murnau subtly upping the stakes to suggest that tabu is more than mere superstition.
As with so many other great films, this one carries its own burden of real life sorrow. Murnau would never see the premiere of Tabu, being killed in a car crash just weeks before its release. His career ended prematurely but on a high note. His final film was one of his best, a vital and significant film that we are all fortunate to have back with us.