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Image Entertainment

Starring Anne Chevalier, Matahi, and Hitu

Written by F.W. Murnau and Robert J. Flaherty
Directed by F.W. Murnau

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Review by Damon Houx                    

Like not eating quiche, not crying during emotional crescendos, and knowing the difference between Allen Dwan and Andre De Toth, among cineastes a love for silent pictures separates the men and the boys. For starters, it's an entirely different aesthetic compared to talking pictures. What's more, silent films are much harder to find.

Most film fans know the silents through comedies: The two reelers of Laurel and Hardy, the films of Keaton and Chaplin. And those filmmakers provide a good introduction. But there's much more to silents than just the comedians. And if you feel unsure about Edwin S. Porter and William Hart, perhaps the best place to start is with director F.W. Murnau and his last film, 1931's Tabu. One of the great artists of the German Expressionist movement (1922's Nosferatu,1926's The Last Laugh), Murnau was plucked by William Fox (the first president of 20th Century Fox) to make movies in America. His first effort stateside was 1927's Sunrise, which is one of the greatest films ever made. But it also flopped upon release, which left Murnau's reputation sullied. Struggling within the studio system, Murnau made two more pictures for Fox: 1928's Four Devils — which is one of the more famous "lost films" of which no footage exists — and 1930's Our Daily Bread, which so displeased Fox that it was re-shot and re-titled City Girl, of which — thankfully — a restored print faithful to Murnau's vision has survived.

Stymied by Hollywood, for his next effort Murnau partnered with another Hollywood outsider, Robert J. Flaherty. Flaherty made his reputation off his 1922 documentary Nanook of the North and was granted carte blanche after its success. He's best know for directing such "nature" films as 1926's Moana and 1934's Man of Aran. Flaherty had a strong visual sense and worked with the people he was documenting, making some question his films' validity as authentic representations of an environment. He was popular enough that Hollywood wanted to give him work, yet the system had no place for a documentarian who shaped his footage in the cutting room, and he was fired off the one narrative film he had been assigned to. Soon after, Murnau and Flaherty became odd friends and collaborated on the screenplay for Tabu; they planned to collaborate on the directing as well.

But directing is different than writing, and though the two were supposed to shoot Tabu together, when it came time to do so Flaherty found Murnau the more commandeering, and Murnau eventually took the helm. Flaherty relinquished, but he was upset and baffled by Murnau's style. What he couldn't tell from the footage was that Murnau was the better director of the two, and as shaped by him, Tabu became one of the last great silent films.

*          *          *

Tabu tells of an island boy (named and played by Matahi) who is an excellent fisherman in his tribe. One day while playing with some boys, he finds a lei and follows the path where it came from. It reveals Reri (played by native Anne Chevalier), who is also playing with her friends. And when a fight breaks out between her and another girl over him, Matahi sides with Reri. But as their romance is about to begin, a ship appears and the entire village goes out to greet it. It's carrying an elder named Hitu, who arrives with note declaring Reri a Holy Maid. In tradition with their culture, all Holy Maids must be chaste, and whoever touches her will be killed as she is Tabu. And in the ceremony declaring such, Matahi kidnaps her and takes her to another island where such old ways have been rejected. Taking up a life as a pearl diver, Matahi is able to support Reri — but the two are followed, and their forbidden love will be tested.

Shot on locations in Bora-Bora, perhaps initially Tabu was meant to mix Flaherty's penchant for getting a real sense of a foreign setting with Murnau's strong visuals. But the film is more Murnau's than Flaherty's, and the location serves its purpose by being specific yet universal, as all great films are. Tabu's story is fairly simple, but what Murnau was best at — in all his films — was creating what might be called a "tone poem." This is one, and the rhythms of the film carry it to its fatalistic conclusion.

Certainly, if one were looking for some sort of deeper symbolism or auteuristic assessment in Tabu, one could link the "forbidden love" element of the story to Murnau's homosexuality. But the beauty of the film (as shot by Floyd Crosby, who won an Oscar for his efforts) transcends such a simple reading. Murnau, as in his greatest works, believed in the poetry of images and mise-en-scene, and he found the recognizable theme of lost love more than enough to carry his film. And, like all his great works, through wordless imagery he conveys it (there are very few titles, and only when people are writing do we see anything like title-cards).

Though by 1931 the world's adaptation to talking pictures was well underway, Murnau rejected sound in this movie. And when watching Tabu, it isn't missed. Unfortunately, Murnau died in a car accident shortly after finishing the film. The picture was a hit, but one of the great directors was lost. One can only wonder how this great visionary would have used sound in his films, or if he could have proved that sound wasn't needed. In any case, Murnau's work has survived him, and Tabu remains one of the great gems of its era.

*          *          *

Image Entertainment's DVD release of Tabu: The Millennium Collection presents the picture in its original full-frame ratio (1.33:1) with monaural audio (DD 1.0). The film was shot on nitrate stick (a highly combustible film element), and the transfer comes from this print. It's adequate for a film that's over 70 years old, but some moments are unsteady, and it does not appear to offer the finer remastering one might expect of a Criterion release. On board is an audio commentary by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom. Her comments are a bit dry, and she only lightly touches on the relationship between Murnau and Flaherty. Still, it's an informative listen.

Bergstrom also provides commentary over the outtake footage (23:44), which was taken from a German source and appears to be dailies from the shoot (that is to say, these are not "missing" scenes). Here Bergstrom's comments covers more subjects than just the outtake footage, elaborating on many topics from the feature track. The disc also includes the silent theatrical trailer (3:01), a still gallery (5:40), and the film short An Essay about Reri (3:44) showing older footage of Chevalier.

— Damon Houx

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