Aside from the new additions, F.W. Murnau’s Tabu is my last remaining silent film. It has been quite some time since I’ve seen a Murnau film, but as soon as this started, I was reminded of The Last Laugh, mostly due to the extremely limited use of title cards in this one. Most of the on-screen text is just that; text from letters or decrees that are all in-universe, and are merely shown to the camera to convey their information. It works well, and forces the film to tell its story mostly visually rather than literally telling it to us, though if you take away the frills of the exotic locations and actors, this isn’t really a tale you haven’t heard before.
The story is simple, and divided into two parts. Two young villagers on an island in the south seas meet and fall in love, but this happy-ever-after is threatened when an emissary of a nearby island nation comes with a decree from the royals, stating that the girl is to become their new sacred maiden, and as such she is now “tabu”, and any man who lays a hand on her or looks at her with desire is to be put to death. Crushed, but at the same time filled with determination, the boy smuggles the girl off the emissary’s ship, and they escape together in a canoe. This leads into the second part, which details how the couple tries to start a new life on a more Westernized island, and as such comes with a bit of subtext and metaphor dealing with Western culture. It’s a bit of a sharp change in the story, but I don’t really think the film would have been able to stay afloat if it had stayed in the third-world setting of the first part. But, then again, this is Murnau; he probably would’ve found a way to make it work. That said, I was surprised at how white-bread the plot was. Barring potential spoilers, it was pretty much “guy falls in love with girl, they find out they can’t be together, they run away together, and the obstacles keeping them apart in their old life rear their heads once again in the new”. I will say, though, that the ending took me by surprise at what an unbelievable downer it was; so much so that to have somewhat upbeat and jolly music playing after the The End pops up seemed so incongruous. The only other thing of note is that cinematographer Floyd Crosby won an Oscar for this film’s photography, which was quite nice given the exotic locales, but for me wasn’t anything particularly amazing. Oh, and I should also mention that this was actually intended to be a collaboration with documentarian Robert J. Flaherty, who shot the opening scene, but was thereafter shooed away from the production by Murnau, and as such only gets credit for the story of the film. If you find any information crediting Flaherty as co-director of this one, that’d be why.
This was such a period piece, or rather a location piece, that it ended up staying too far away from the greatness that Murnau had achieved in Sunrise. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of that earlier film, but this was too limited by its choice to tell the story entirely in the South Pacific. As such, it ended up being merely good, and it also ended up as another example of a film with enough specificities that gave it its spot on the list, and not for being an exemplary film in its own right. That, and the fact that it was Murnau’s last film; he would die in a car accident a week before this film’s premiere, marking one of the first big tragic lives-cut-short in Hollywood. Honestly, with the exception of Nosferatu, which I would argue should still make the list on historical significance alone, there’s really not much reason to see this one over the other two Murnau works on the list. It was okay, but it really wasn’t anything special.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10