Compared to John Ford’s studio-bound—though still highly appealing—South Seas adventure The Hurricane, recently reviewed here, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, directed by the great German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, is a patently more realistic and wholly distinctive production. Aside from its genuine French Polynesian locations (Bora Bora and Tahiti), Murnau’s silent 1931 film features a cast consisting almost entirely of actual island inhabitants, rather than Hollywood stars, thus resulting in a generally less strained authenticity. Not necessarily a better film for this reason alone, Tabu, even with its fictional plot, is nevertheless a purer and more revealing historical and scenic document.
Directed by Murnau and “told by” he and renowned documentarian Robert J. Flaherty (of Nanook of the North  fame), Tabu is divided into two chapters. The first, “Paradise”, traces the rapid courtship of The Boy (Matahi) and The Girl (Riri—real name Anne Chevalier), which is cut short when the chief of a neighboring village proclaims the virginal young woman to be a holy figure, rendering her “tabu” and condemning any who touch her. For her to accept this designation, which she is essentially obligated to do, she must forsake her true love. The film’s second chapter, “Paradise Lost”, follows the couple after Matahi rescues/kidnaps Riri and the two flee to a more modern island abounding with Western temptations. Whatever the validity of the superstitious “tabu” curse, it’s enough to send much of the indigenous populace into turmoil. Attempting to keep the peace, the French government offers a reward for Matahi’s arrest and the return of Riri, while the two prepare for yet another escape. Tabu is a tragic love story at its core, and it is most emotionally effective in scenes where Matahi and Riri act against the established authority, flouting the societal expectations in the name of an unbridled passion. Yet for all of their affectionate enthusiasm, the two continually find their relationship at odds with their cultural traditions and the possibility of a strange, new life together.
Within Tabu’s 86-minute runtime, this basic plot is more than enough to stay engaging, and for nonprofessionals, Matahi and Riri do an exceptional job expressing the childlike fervor of their love and the fear of the ensuing threats. Even the amateur extras and side-characters give capable performances. Perhaps the believability is because, in many cases, they are essentially doing what they would normally do: dancing, working, socializing, etc. A fascinating early portion of the film chronicles the astonishingly skillful fishing technique of the islanders. Murnau apparently shot so much footage of this process that Hunt in the South Seas, an ethnographic documentary short, was compiled from the material. Like Ford’s film, Murnau’s is equally concerned with the representation of a civilization. Individually, the men are highlighted for their impressive physical feats (to see a throng of them scramble their way aboard a ship is quite the spectacle) while the women exude a natural beauty (too much so for some censors, who cut certain shots of the bare-breasted natives).
As opposed to Ford, however, Murnau does not try to supplement any type of misleading or falsified action to augment character behavior, nor is there the affected placement of decorative elements into the dwellings of the inhabitants. Murnau’s film is therefore surprisingly less ornate than The Hurricane. Where Ford’s recreation of a South Seas village is littered with presumed cultural artifacts, perhaps overcompensating for its inauthenticity by overdoing the set decoration a bit, Murnau was in the actual area depicted, which, in reality, turned out to be more sparsely adorned than one may think. Because the locations of Tabu were not fabricated, there is less of a need to convince audiences otherwise. While there may be visual abstraction, symbolism, and thematic parallels to consider, the idyllic Bora-Bora setting stands on its own. Where so much is as it truly was, Tabu builds its narrative on a lifestyle that existed before the story, not the other way around.
Connected to this idea of a more objectively presented world, Tabu is rather restrained stylistically, especially compared to Murnau’s previous work (though admittedly, he did often go above and beyond the norms of standard stylistic virtuosity). The light and shadow play is a result of keen camera placement capturing the environment’s natural wonders, not a creation of hand-crafted expressionistic design. Here the stress is on magnificently framed static compositions, rather than elaborate set construction, movement, or editing, a shift in technique that mostly runs counter to films like The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), or Sunrise (1927), but one that falls in line with Tabu as a docudrama, an observational chronicle that puts story and subject over brazen style. As Murnau once said, “Real art is simple, but simplicity requires the greatest art.” (Some of this technical restraint also had to do with the shortage of available equipment on location.)
As is detailed in “The Language of Shadows,” one of several bonus features included on the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Tabu, there was difficulty before, during, and after production of the film. Another island project had just fallen through for Murnau, and while Flaherty was intended to be a more involved cameraman on the picture, Floyd Crosby was eventually hired and took over (and would win an Oscar for his work). During shooting, the relationship between Murnau and Flaherty remained contentious, with Murnau going so far as to ban his collaborator from the island film lab. Animosity continued as Flaherty expressed his disdain for Murnau’s lack of vice (he neither smoked nor drank), also arguing that he did not have a firm grasp on the film’s structure, and even accusing the director of manipulating the islanders for the purpose of the film (an ironic complaint given Flaherty’s own “documentary” habits). Of course, the most tragic story surrounding Tabu is what occurred just a week prior to the film’s premiere. Under contract with Paramount for five additional films to be shot in the South Seas, a region he loved, the 42-year-old Murnau was involved in a car crash that would ultimately end his life, making this film, arguably his most atypical, though certainly one of his most beautiful, the German master’s final work.