Produced towards the end of the silent era, F.W. Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) was to be the legendary German director final film. A lyrical tragedy that imbues elements of factual and narrative filmmaking, Murnau’s exotic adventure is a poetic Polynesian love story that effortless articulates its tale like an affectionately composed photo album. A tale of prohibited love across the south seas, Murnau’s story concerns a young girl, Reri (Anne Chevalier), who’s selected to be her tribe’s sacred maiden and consecrated to the gods – making it ‘taboo’ for her to marry or for any man to lay eyes upon her.
This comes as devastating news to Matahi, Reri’s young sweetheart, who must sit and watch as his beloved is whisked away to a neighbouring island. Fuelled by his intense emotions, he sails under the veiled glare of the moon to kidnap her. His quest is successful and the pair flee to Takapota. However, unlike the untainted paradise of their Bora Bora homeland, Takapota has already been colonised – with the virus of Western vices already having altered the fragile ecology and rapidly corrupting the film’s fugitive lovers.
Shot in Bali, Tabu was meant to be a collaborative effort between Murnau and American documentary producer Robert Flaherty (Whose Nanook of the North shares some noticeable similarities with Murnau’s). However, when Flaherty realised this insight into the lives of Bali’s indigenous people would have such a heavily fictionalised romantic approach he withdrew. His influence remains though, as the film’s opening scenes offer an unhurried and elegant snapshot of a secluded existence life – presenting the simplicity and beauty of everyday Polynesian existence. Combining stunning photography with an enthralling score, Tabu’s story is told through unobtrusive title cards, yet their presence is hardly warranted.
Filmed using a cast almost entirely made up of natives, Tabu could be easily be perceived as an anthropological study disguised as a traditional romantic tragedy. Acting as a fascinating examination of colonialism, Murnau presents us with the values and lifestyle of these indigenous players as a example of the unconcealed innocence and honesty that has become veiled by the bureaucratic and industrial advancements of humanity.
This study on the effects of colonialism will be eerily familiar to those who were mesmerised by Miguel Gomes’ 2011 Tabu. The critical success of Gomes’ reimagining is just further proof of how the shrinking of the world and loss of cultural identity remains a major concern in today’s society – and why Murnau’s adventure remains quite so iconic. A souvenir from another world in more ways than one, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas is a fascinating insight into the early days of colonialism and a eulogy for the death of silent cinema.