TABU: A STORY OF THE SOUTH SEAS (1931)

  • Director: F.W. Murnau
  • Writers: F.W. Murnau and Robert J. Flaherty
  • Starring: Matahi, Anne Chevalier, Bill Bambridge, and Hitu
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#82), 1 Oscar (Best Cinematography)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video

I have been picking movies off this best movies list by the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, for extra variety and whatnot, since they are all snooty French people who have no problem leaving off famous movies for obscure European art films. The probably unavoidable side effect of this is that they make some choices that seem objectively incorrect. There’s Fritz Lang movie on there from 1950s Hollywood called Moonfleet that no one has heard of and I literally cannot find anywhere, which is why we have not done it on this site yet. Anyway, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas is more a vaguely interesting film oddity than a classic movie, and the fact that it’s on this list makes it seem to me that they should have polled more people.

Tabu was originally the brainchild of Robert J. Flaherty, creator of “docufiction,” as a collaboration with the great German silent director F.W. Murnau. The two of them had been friends for years, but had a falling out during the course of shooting this movie, because Flaherty had pictured one of his Nanook of the North-style documentaries, and Murnau wasn’t about to let anyone tell him how to make a movie. In the end, the movie’s main claim to fame was as Murnau’s last, because he died in a car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway near Santa Barbara one week before it premiered, at the age of 42.

The movie was shot on location on the island of Bora-Bora, with a crew of just Murnau, Flaherty, the cinematographer, Floyd Crosby (who would win an Oscar), and a lot of locals. As in the style of Flaherty’s prior films, the cast was also made up of locals. Unlike those movies, which purported to documentary status, Tabu is very upfront about its status as fiction. Similar to Murnau’s much more famous Sunrise, it contains no dialogue but does have a synced soundtrack with music and effects. The story is about two lovers, played by Matahi and Anne Chevalier (billed as “Reri,” the same name as her character) who have to flee their island after she is declared a “sacred virgin” and “tabu.” The two of them then flee to what I think is supposed to be Tahiti, and the movie takes a turn I was not expecting, where the two of them have to adjust to life under colonialism (none of the other Flaherty films include any encroachment by the outside world). 

The best scenes in the movie are a handful of moments when the community comes together for traditional dances, but whenever it does much of anything else, particularly tries to be a love story, it drags. Taken out of the studio into location shoots in the South Pacific, Murnau’s technical wizardry is far less on display, and instead we get a silent drama with untrained actors. All of the plot points are delivered entirely through shots of various pieces of writing, notes, and letters, in place of title cards, and unlike some other silent movies we’ve featured on here, if it wasn’t explained like this we would have no idea what was going on. 

The version of this movie available on Amazon weirdly has all the writing in Italian, which is neither the language of the movie’s creators nor of any of the characters in the movie. I looked into this and apparently that’s because the uncut, surviving version of the movie comes from an Italian print. The original was cut down by five minutes by the studio releasing it, Paramount, in order to comply with the early Production Code. The restored version, for example, includes some brief, National Geographic-style nudity in the native dancing scenes, which was never going to fly in 1930s American movie theaters. Even in the original cut, the movie barely makes 80 minutes, not unusual for the time.

That the full version of Tabu had to be found in an Italian vault is perhaps unsurprising, given that even at the time of its release it was seen as more of a curiosity than a mainstream movie. By 1931, movies without dialogue were seen as passé by American audiences, and the movie failed to make back Flaherty and Murnau’s initial investment at the box office. Murnau didn’t have to worry about it, while Flaherty had to look overseas to find investors for his next film, Man of Aran, where he got to do whatever he wanted.

While I didn’t find Tabu particularly entertaining, it is interesting both for its place in movie history, and, like some of Flaherty’s other work, as a record of a non-western society at a particular place and time. Honestly, it could be far less watchable from a 2021 perspective, but it has the definite virtue of respecting the people it’s depicting as actual humans, a time when Hollywood was mostly not doing this with people who weren’t white. There really isn’t anything in this movie that will make you cringe, so that’s good I suppose. But if you’re watching this as someone who likes some of Murnau’s other movies and wants to be a completist, I’m not sure there’s going to be a lot here for you.

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