The Crank: ‘Tabu’ Program Notes (10/4/12 Screening)

The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.


Tabu (1931) is the final film from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, famed German director of Nosferatu (1922), Faust (1924), Sunrise (1926), and countless other silent classics. After 18 months of filming in Tahiti with famed filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North), and then young cinematographer Floyd Crosby (who would win the Oscar for his cinematography), Murnau died, at 42, in a car accident one week before the New York premiere. A unique mix of the documentary experience of Flaherty and Crosby, with the brilliant silent directing of Murnau, Tabu, based on a Polynesian legend, tells the tragic story of a Pearl Diver (Matahi) and Maiden (Reri). Along with dangerous marked waters, the “tabu” of the title is the love they share despite Reri’s religious duty to remain a virgin maiden. The two must overcome both the edicts of their culture and the dangerous waters that separate them from their freedom.

Aside from its place as the last piece of Murnau’s prolific film career, Tabu‘s content and style are what make it particularly noteworthy. It is easily (if not hastily) placed alongside Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) and The Forbidden Tomb (1959). However, unlike these films, Tabu evades making claims of being documentary, as is the case of Flaherty’s controversial film, nor does it use white actors in “brownface,” as is seen in Lang’s films (despite the fact that both pictures were shot on location in India). Rather, Tabu portrays itself as a cross between ethnographic and fiction filmmaking. This is further enhanced by the cinematography of Crosby, who had experience in photography and documentary film, as opposed to narrative filmmaking.

Despite using a shooting script with a fictional story, the film uses an entirely native cast. This, along with the Tahitian location, was one of the more notable elements of Tabu upon its release. Edwin Schallert, film critic of the Los Angeles Times, praised the film’s picturesque cinematography: “[Tabu] proves to be a lyrical and poetic achievement in motion pictures. The director…made his ultimate production in the South Seas, and it reveals a wistful and romantic charm in its story, set against natural backgrounds.” Given that the film is silent, an aesthetic choice on Murnau’s part rather than a technical one, this is high praise of a picture premiering at a time where nearly all of Hollywood was engrossing itself in sound films. Continue reading “The Crank: ‘Tabu’ Program Notes (10/4/12 Screening)” »