The great silent director F.W. Murnau (SUNRISE) collaborated with famed documentarian Robert Flaherty (NANOOK OF THE NORTH ) on TABU, a visually beautiful story of doomed lovers in the South Seas.
On the Tahitian island of Bora-Bora, a young pearl diver named Matahi is in love with a beautiful maiden named Reri. Their idyllic life together, spent swimming, fishing, and dancing, comes to a halt when the chief of the neighboring island of Fanuma sends a warrior named Hitu to proclaim that
Reri has been named as the successor to the island's sacred virgin and that she is now taboo to all men. Any man who breaks the taboo and touches her will be put to death. Hitu takes Reri on his boat and prepares to take her away to his island, but Matahi sneaks on board and kidnaps her.
Matahi and Reri escape in a canoe and sail through storms and rough seas and land on an island ruled by white men, where the old gods of superstition are forgotten. Matahi gets work as a pearl diver and when the government demands his and Reri's arrest in order to keep peace with the other
islands, Matahi bribes a policeman with a pearl, and they're allowed to stay. Hitu learns of their whereabouts, however, and sends Reri a message that Matahi will be killed if she doesn't surrender to him in three days. Reri plans an escape by buying two tickets on a schooner which will arrive in
two days, but Matahi discovers that he has been duped into signing the bill for a large feast and owes 3500 francs. To get the money, Matahi goes out at night to dive for pearls and is almost killed by a shark, but when he returns, he finds a goodbye note from Reri telling him she has left with
Hitu in order to save his life. Matahi desperately swims after Hitu's boat and catches up to it, but Hitu cuts the rope that Matahi grabs onto, and he drowns as the boat sails away.
After Murnau's unhappy experience with the Hollywood studio system, he and Flaherty formed a joint production company in 1929 and went to Tahiti to make TABU together. Flaherty wanted to do an ethnographic, anthropological study of pearl fishermen, along the lines of his previous documentaries,
but Murnau became fascinated with the exotic beauty and primitive superstitions of the South Seas culture and decided to create a narrative film, albeit in a quasi-documentary style with an all-native cast. When the original backers of the film, Colorart Synchrotone, went bankrupt in the
stockmarket crash, Murnau financed the production with almost $150,000 of his own money, and he and Flaherty parted company. Although Flaherty is credited as co-writer and co-producer, TABU is essentially a Murnau film, as confirmed by Flaherty's brother, who was the film's associate producer.
Murnau stayed on and spent eight months shooting the film on the islands of Bora-Bora and Takapota, and all the hallmarks of his style and themes are in evidence, such as the overwhelmingly sensual imagery, the concept of purity and redemption as symbolized by nature (especially water), the
supreme power of love, and the despoiling of beauty and innocence by a corrupt "civilization." The film is as stylized and poetic as any of Murnau's, but in a naturalistic context, as opposed to the virtuoso soundstage artifice of his previous films. The Oscar-winning cinematography by Floyd
Crosby, who later shot HIGH NOON (1952), and most of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films, is magnificent, filled with shimmering, luminescent images that evoke both paradise and paradise lost. Tragically, Murnau was killed in a car accident the night he finished editing the film, just days before
its premiere. Ironically, TABU went on to become his biggest commercial success and would have given him the financial independence he had always craved. (Nudity.)
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- Review: The great silent director F.W. Murnau (SUNRISE) collaborated with famed documentarian Robert Flaherty (NANOOK OF THE NORTH ) on TABU, a visually beautiful story of doomed lovers in the South Seas. On the Tahitian island of Bora-Bora, a young pearl diver n… (more)