In the days before the film industry's stringent Hays Code was established in 1930 and strictly enforced after 1934 to regulate "morally offensive" content, many silent and 'Pre-Code' taboo-breaking films contained adult-oriented material. In addition to nudity, sexuality and violence, they included candid depictions of drug use, prostitution, lawlessness, and religious blasphemy.
One of the last great examples of an erotic film before the “Hays Code” was made by one of the greatest silent film directors, the German expressionistic director F. W. Murnau. Unfortunately, “Tabu: A Story of the South Seas” (1931) was Murnau’s last film. It was (co-scripted with pioneering documentary film-maker Robert J. Flaherty. “Tabu” presented a lush tale of ill-fated native South Seas love (with flower-garlanded, bare-breasted native dancers) and the breaking of a sexual tabu (filmed entirely on location in Tahiti) it was a very late black/white silent film and an Oscar-winning effort for Floyd Crosby's cinematography
The “back story” of the film “Tabu” is fascinating because it illuminates a great turn in Murnau’s directing career, and had he not tragically died in a car crash before the film’s debut, the success of the film would have confirmed his artistic conviction to leave Hollywood forever to start on a burgeoning genre of “exotic location” films.
“Tabu” was released well into the sound era; it was a risky venture for Murnau yet an artistic triumph nonetheless. Although “Tabu” was primarily created in Murnau's vision, it was not entirely his work alone. The American director Robert Flaherty often regarded as the father of the documentary style of film making, was the film's co-director. Flaherty had originally started his career as a globe-trotting surveyor, a background which served him well for the creation of his 1922 silent masterpiece “Nanook of the North,” the first significant "documentary" film. For “Tabu,” Flaherty assisted with the story and camerawork and heavily influenced the documentary-like nature of the film itself.
One common trait both directors possessed was their frustration with Hollywood's interference with their artistic visions. Murnau's previous film, “City Girl,” had been butchered by the Fox Studios, which had also canceled Flaherty's last project mid-way throughout production. Consequently, in the spring of 1929, Murnau and Flaherty formed their own independent partnership in which they would share equal screen credit and equal profits for their films. Their first collaboration, “Tabu,” would employ a cast of non-professionals and would be set in the South Seas, far from Hollywood.
In truth, Murnau and Flaherty had vastly differing directorial styles. Whereas Murnau was well-schooled in the craft of film making and quite meticulous in the planning of his scenes, Flaherty had no training in film making at all and often photographed hundreds of feet of random footage, which he later assembled coherently in the editing room. Their differences as well as financial difficulties in making the film, eventually caused their initial collaboration to end on somewhat poor terms, but regardless, Murnau and Flaherty had plans to work together again on an upcoming project. In fact, Murnau had been quite pleased with the experience of on-location shooting and had vowed during the production of “Tabu” never to work in a studio again. Despite the financial hardship Murnau faced in making the film, he wound up totally financing the film himself after several distribution companies strung him along, Murnau planned on only making films set on exotic locations depicting the “simple” erotic and sensual interplay between native peoples.
The story of “Tabu”would be essentially a simple story of forbidden love between a young native fisherman and a young island maiden, Reri. At the time, the best fisherman in the South Pacific islands was a young man named Matahi, so he was cast as the male lead. Anne Chevalier, only 16 at the time of production, was to portray Reri. Neither had ever acted before, so it was to Murnau's credit that he was able to extract such powerful performances from both young performers. Furthermore, since “Tabu”was to be a silent film (quite rare by the early 1930's), Murnau was able to concentrate on the visually powerful narrative of the film. Given Flaherty's affinity for this sort of cultural material as well, the completed product of this unique collaboration was to become one of the last truly great silent films.
“Tabu” premiered in New York in late March of 1931. This “experimental” film by Murnau and Flaherty quickly became an international success, but while Flaherty continued to make great films for two more decades, Murnau never knew the impact of his final masterpiece. He had died in a car crash on March 18, 1931, shortly before the film's premiere. At the young age of 42, Murnau's death had deprived the cinematic world of its most gifted director, and we are left only to speculate about what other masterpieces Murnau might have crafted had he lived.
The romantic tale of the love of “a sun-bronzed Tahitian fisherman for a young woman whose body has been consecrated to the gods, rendering her tabu for mortal men”, “Tabu” depicts young lovers Matahi and Reri as they fall in love, are tested by Reri’s selection as maid to the god (it is death to even look at her in lust), and escape the island by canoe only to meet further trouble and woe as they attempt to live in “civilization”
“Tabu's” story commences on the island of Bora Bora and is divided into two chapters - "Paradise" and "Paradise Lost." Chapter 1 - Paradise: The youngsters Matahi and Reri are in love with each other. When Reri is chosen by the old warrior Hitu to be the god's maid, she must stay virgin and untouched, otherwise her lover and she should die. But Matahi abducts and escapes with her to an island ruled by the white man, were their gods would be harmless and powerless.
Chapter 2 - Paradise Lost: Matahi is an excellent diver, getting many pearls from the bottom of the ocean, but he does not know the meaning of money, promoting a feast to the villagers and signing the bills the smart Chinese businessman presents to him. Meanwhile Hitu chases them, and Matahi and Reri decide to buy a ticket to travel by ship to another place. However, the Chinese charges the bill and Matahi, without any money, goes to a forbidden sea with sharks trying to get a huge pearl to pay for his debts and escape with Reri. But she decides to leave the island with Hitu and spare Matahi's life. But Matahi swims after their boat, dying of exhaustion in the sea.
While “Tabu”is clearly rooted in a realistic setting, Murnau enhances his simple tale with subtle, allegorical overtones that enhance the film's emotional impact. “Tabu” has an almost mythical quality about it, and the typical denizens of classic mythology are represented several times in the film. Right at the start, there is Matahi poised like a classic warrior. He is the vulnerable human hero caught in a struggle against the will of the gods, as symbolized by Hitu and the old traditions as well as the forces of nature which become more prevalent in the latter half of the film. Furthermore, Hitu is greeted in his initial appearance as though he were a revered messenger from the gods. However, his subsequent appearances take on a ghostly, dreamlike quality, particularly during the film's final nocturnal sequence, in which Hitu appears almost as Greek mythology’s Charon, escorting Reri across the River Styx. In the early waterfall sequence, the bathing maidens are as water nymphs. Later, in an impressive sequence, a portion of a local lagoon is made "tabu" due to the presence of an unknown underwater creature, which Matahi must eventually confront in his efforts to protect Reri.
While Flaherty's influence may be felt most strongly in the documentary-style of the first chapter of the film, the second chapter, with its powerful imagery and its progressively expressionistic style, is clearly Murnau's. His confident direction, his meticulous construction of every sequence, and the gorgeous composition of his shots all embody “Tabu”with a universal appeal that is appreciable even today by modern audiences.
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.