#171 (tie) – Tabu (1931), dir. F.W. Murnau

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That’s a paddlin’. Matahi (left) and other indigenous islanders race out to a sailing vessel in F.W. Murnau’s Tabu, a silent film shot on location in the South Pacific using local people in all of the principal roles.

The maiden sacred to the gods has died and must be replaced; the chief has sent his emissary to collect Reri, the young woman who will become the new sacred maiden. As such she is forbidden contact with all men, and any man who violates the tabu placed upon Reri must suffer death for his crime. Reri and her love Matahi cannot abide by this decision, and so the pair steal away in the dead of night to flee the tabu and the wrath of their people. Tabu (1931) is an unusual American production for its day, in that it not only doesn’t focus on the doings of Western characters but also utilizes non-white actors for all of the principal roles. This was no doubt due to the influence of Robert Flaherty, the early documentary filmmaker most famous for Nanook of the North (1922). The project was meant to be a collaboration between Flaherty and influential German director F.W. Murnau, but as filming got underway, Murnau assumed more and more control of the movie. As such, the film involves an interesting blending of documentary sensibilities with plot elements and contrivances that are more typical of Hollywood dramas. But however Westernized the tale may be, the on-location shooting, native cast, and impressive cinematography make Tabu a unique movie experience. (85 min.)

S. – The tropical locale felt like a huge change of pace from Murnau, who thus far has brought to the Sight & Sound list dark and moody personal drama. There is still some dramatic night-time shooting and plenty of personal angst but most of the action is infused with brilliant sunshine. Shot on location and largely outdoors the director shows his wealth of talent for creating visually stunning compositions, admittedly in very attractive natural surrounds. It is not all palm trees and waterfalls, many of the memorable scenes are teeming with activity. The appearance of the ship carrying the messenger of Reri’s fate sparks an energetic sequence as the islanders scurry to their watercraft and race across the water to find out the news. The ease with which the distance from shore to boat is covered by the crowd conveys the mastery of the inhabitants over these exotic environs. And the careless physicality of all present in rowing out to meet the boat, scaling ropes to board the ship and dropping easily onto the deck was just plain impressive.

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Islanders scramble aboard a sailing vessel from every direction as part of a remarkable sequence early in the film showcasing the sea-faring skills of the local people.

J. – The tropical scenery is quite wonderful and Murnau does manage to put together some wonderfully bright and exciting sequences, while still managing to traffic in the shadows and dread of his earlier works (particularly in the second half of Tabu). We mentioned shortly after seeing the film that however lovely the cinematography might have been (it won the Academy Award), Tabu does suffer somewhat for being in black-and-white. That’s not a statement I would normally make, given that I love black-and-white film and photography, but the coastal tropics pretty much beg to be shot in color (which was prohibitively expensive to do at the time). The glory of the sea, in particular, loses something when everything is black and grey. But perhaps I’m biased after spending so many years in Southeast Asia.

The sequence you mentioned in which the inhabitants of Bora Bora descend en masse upon the sailing vessel is marvelous, and the skill and power the people show with their outrigger canoes is super impressive. This is particularly true of leading man Matahi, who can rocket himself along while standing on his canoe, which is both amazing to witness and serves as an excellent way of demonstrating to the audience that he really is a native of the island and not just an actor brought in to portray an islander. I know we both have some qualms about the way native performers are used in this film (and I’m sure we’ll get back to that), but it’s hard to deny the effectiveness of what one sees on film when the community is acting as one — even if it is in a scripted/staged manner.

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We disagree somewhat on the effectiveness of the film’s more documentary efforts, but it is nonetheless impressive to watch a man nimbly scale a coconut palm like it was an every day affair. The excellent black-and-white cinematography may not be ideal for the tropics, but is still capable of producing remarkable images and contrasts like this.

S. – I thought the standard of acting was really high given that much of the cast were movie-novices, there was mercifully little of the pantomime quality that can creep into silent film. In the first part of the movie, which was presented with a documentary aesthetic, some of the scenes did feel self-conscious (for instance the men spear-fishing and the women playing in the waterfall) but once the story was allowed to take over the performances were very engaging. Murnau once again explores the dynamics of a romantic relationship, but unlike in Sunrise this one is being torn apart from without rather than within. I felt this story was much more successfully told, with the couple striving to enjoy the thrill of being together but continuously haunted by the tabu they are breaking. The use of night and day was put to great effect here, the sunlight scenes focusing on their happiness together but in the darkness, within their dim hut or at night, the insidious threat of discovery loomed large.

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Matahi and many of the other amateur performers in Tabu acquit themselves very well. This is no doubt partly because of the lack of sound, but there is no diminishing the charisma and depth of feeling in Matahi and Anne Chevalier’s performances. And it certainly is a welcome feature in an early film to see non-Western performers taking up roles that many filmmakers undoubtedly would have given to white actors.

J. – The acting was very strong, particularly the performances of Matahi and Anne Chevalier (Reri) as the couple defying the tabu. Their chemistry is excellent and the performances generally are appealing, passionate, and frequently tender. Some of the smaller roles are rather obviously filled by amateurs, but they cast the leads very well. And I think that’s part of the reason that I preferred the second half of the film over the first.

The first half of Tabu, as you mentioned, does have more of a documentary feel and is more about the community and life on the island than about any particular story. In the second half, Matahi and Reri are on the run and the story zeros in on them and their worries. I’ve read that Flaherty was rather annoyed that Murnau kept steering the story towards something more conventional, but I think that really works in the film’s favor. The first half is a bit aimless, which is fine given that it serves primarily to familiarize the viewer with the world of the islanders and to establish the characters, but it would have gotten tiresome had it persisted for too long. And I think Murnau is at his best when things fall apart for his characters. The second half of the film also places the characters in a multicultural setting and I think the movie benefits it from immensely.

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The second half of Tabu takes place on an island under French control in which locals dive for pearls. The multicultural setting allows for an interesting look at Matahi and Reri’s relationship, the exploitation of capitalism, and the coming together of people of many backgrounds who are now largely isolated from the larger world.

S. – Ha, ha! I can imagine that the documentary maker was thinking “What the hell?” during the second part of Tabu. But I agree that this is where the movie really lifts. The sheltered islanders flung into the varied and lucrative pearl trading world was an interesting twist and our protagonists are mesmerising to watch among the seedy mix of ex-pats seeking to make their fortune. A consequence of incorporating the ethnographic element of the film were a few moments of unease for me where I was bothered that the film-makers were straying into exploitative territory. How can you trust that the Islanders were being presented authentically when you know the narrative is constructed for entertainment? Were some of the scene-setting elements just thrown in to satisfy Hollywood ideals rather than providing real insight into life on Bora-Bora? In many ways attempting this blend of fact and fiction is an unnatural combination and I am not surprised there was tension between Flaherty and Murnau. At the end of the movie I was not sure that anything was gained by incorporating the documentary element.

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Tabu features a ceremony by which the emissary of the chief is greeted and preparations are made for Reri to become the sacred maiden. The scene raises certain issues of exploitation by the filmmakers: are we seeing something authentic, or at least typical, or is this an excuse for titillation at the expense of the islanders?

J. – I think the documentary-ish aspects certainly helped sell the characters and set the stage, which would have been particularly important back in an age when most Westerners would never have seen or heard anything about this region of the world. But I too wondered about the veracity and the possibility of exploitation. Certainly some of the early scenes had an unfortunate whiff of the “noble savage” about them in their idealized (and overly simple) vision of life in a tropical paradise. I was heartened to learn that the concept of a person being made inviolate is an actual tradition among Pacific islanders (and indeed the English word “taboo” derives from that indigenous practice), so there was at least an element of reality behind the main story. But one is left to wonder. For instance, does a scene involving bare-breasted women dancing as part of a ceremony represent a bold move by the filmmakers to present real South Pacific traditions to a censorious West, or is it a way to use the guise of documentary to get some boobs into the picture? I am left uncertain — although the fact that all of the indigenous women in said scene are very attractive nudges me toward the latter. So when the action moves away from the village and heads to a more cosmopolitan world, I felt like the film was on much more solid footing. And was much more nuanced, as a marvelous scene of people dancing at the pearl diving outpost conveyed just by keeping the camera focused on the feet of the dancers — different races, cultures, styles, and income levels all jockey for space on the floor. It was a great sequence.

But even better was the ending, I was so pleased that Murnau finally didn’t cop-out in the final moments.

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Murnau allows the darker elements of the film to come to the fore in the second half of Tabu, and makes excellent use of shadows and night to convey the growing fear and turmoil as the lovers alternately fight against or despair about the curse that is upon them.

S. – The ending was very powerful. The cynical part of me wonders if a tragic ending was somehow more acceptable to the filmmakers when a minority character dies than, say, the unfortunate doorman in The Last Laugh. I hope that was not a factor, for the somber closing here adds weight to this story. Tabu was enjoyable for both the visuals and the tale that was told, however, it is not a contender for my Top 10 list and is probably not a film I would track down to watch again.

J. – I don’t think that Matahi not being white was a factor; indeed Murnau wanted a big bummer of an ending for The Last Laugh but caved (sort of) to studio pressure for a happy ending. I personally think Murnau really blew it by not giving sad endings to either The Last Laugh or Sunrise. For me, the tragic ending of Tabu worked so well because it felt so honest, and I rather like how it balanced the idea that the grim ending for the lovers was the result of the actions of men (the relentless envoy of the chief) and possible supernatural forces (the curse of the tabu). But more than that, Reri and Matahi are both doing what they can to save their partner, giving no thought to themselves, and in doing so doom each other, which is doubly tragic. There was real power in Matahi’s desperate swim for the envoy’s boat, in part because it was beautifully filmed by Murnau, but also because every other movie you’ve ever seen tells you that a rescue is in progress. The way the taciturn old man settles it all with a flick of a knife is devastating. I agree with you that Tabu is not among the best films we have seen so far, but I was struck into silence by the finale. I can’t help but be glad we saw it.

Related yammers:
#5 – Sunrise, dir. F.W. Murnau
#127 – The Last Laugh, dir. F.W. Murnau
#202 – Germany, Year Zero (1948), dir. Roberto Rossellini
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