Film

Tabu (1931)

John G. Nettles

Call it Paul Gaughin's Romeo and Juliet.


Tabu

Director: F. W. Murnau
Cast: Matahi, Reri, Jean, Hitu
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: Milestone Films
First date: 1931
Last date: 2002

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image