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.

The use of cast and locations would have resounding effects outside of the film itself. Paramount, which distributed the film, took an immediate liking to the heroine, Reri. They wanted her to be advertised as one would any young starlet capable of becoming the fodder of fan magazines. Soon after the film was made, she left Tahiti and appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, among other performances. The Los Angeles Times wrote of her trip back to Tahiti five years after the film came out. She quickly left, reporting that she found nothing to do at her old home. Even the island itself seemed to be affected by Murnau as well. In 1935, the Los Angeles Times reported a fire in Papete, Tahiti. Supposedly Murnau himself broke some tabus of his own during filmmaking, and was blamed for the misfortune.

Originally, Murnau and Flaherty were signed on to make a film called Turia with a company called Colorart. Murnau contacted Flaherty while yachting in the south seas. They decided to work together and wrote a script. After difficulties with receiving funding from Colorart, the duo split from their funders and the script evolved into Tabu in an attempt to evade legal problems. Despite what seemed to have been a brilliant team, much strife occurred between the directors. Flaherty became frustrated at Murnau’s production and directing styles. He disagreed with Murnau’s “westernization” of the script, despite both critics and filmmakers such as Erich Rohmer praising the story. The New York Times wrote, “It is a narrative that captivates the attention, and the charming glimpses in the ‘Paradise’ half will linger long in the minds of those who see the film.” It is generally agreed that the beauty of the story only serves to enhance the visuals of this silent film that appeared just as the art was dying out. No less should be expected of one of Murnau, considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. To quote Lotte Eisner, “The finale, in its visual perfection, is the apogee of the art of the silent film.”

—Michael Potterton

Special thanks to Janet Bergstrom, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, and the Program in Cinema and Media Studies.

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Bergstrom, Janet. “DVD Commentary.” Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. Milestone Film & Video, Inc.

Eisner, Lotte. Murnau. Le Terrain Vague, 1965.

Heller, Amy. Doros, Dennis. “F.W. Murnau’s Last Masterpiece—Tabu.” Milestone Film & Video, Inc. 1992.

Miller, Barbara. “‘Tabu’ Star Returns to Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times 13 Dec. 1936.

“Mr. Murnau’s New Film.” The New York Times Feb. 1931.

“Omen Seen in Isle Fire.” Los Angeles Times 10 Oct. 1935.

Schallert, Edwin. “Murnau’s Farewell Poetic.” Los Angeles Times 19 April. 1931.

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