Tabu (F.W. Murnau, 1931)

A while back I said that John Ford’s “The Hurricane” might’ve worked better as a silent film; that its portrayal of the life of native South Islanders already had enough moments of stagy, exaggerated expressionism that it might as well have just gone for broke and given up the contrived plot and performances and just focus on those faces and those actors in dynamic sculpture-like poses in a full-on expressionistic silent film.  Well, in “Tabu,” F.W. Murnau basically granted my wish and gave me that silent film (other than a few instances of singing in the soundtrack) about forbidden love and the exotic customs and locales of the South Islands, and it turns out I basically had no idea what I was talking about, because “Tabu” is for the most part an absolute bore.  The story, involving pearl diver Matahi’s prohibited love for the girl Reri, who’s seen as something of a human deity by the tribes of the South Islands, and the pair’s attempt to escape from the islands and tradition to be with each other, is melodramatic, and therefore practically made for silent cinema, and had tremendous promise.  And indeed, a select moment or two of “Tabu” is wonderful to look at, and represented Murnau in his prime (ironic, since this was his final film before dying far too soon, and far too deep into his prime as a filmmaker, in an auto accident).  There’s that moment during the big tribal dance, when Matahi butts in and does his show-stealing dance with Rari (who’s smile is to die for, by the way), and the tribal elder, in close-up, has the sternest look you can imagine.  It’s a face that tells you that his rage can barely be contained, and only shows a deep disdain for this punk who dares to defy tradition by falling for Rari.  And later, Matahi and Rari make their escape and try to make a life for themselves on a French colony, only for Rari to discover that the tribe has discovered their whereabouts.  While the blissfully ignorant Matahi is off living the life of a full-on hedonist, we cut to Rari’s face – a face of deep, solemn disappointment that this life of happiness must inevitably end, but also a face of regrettable understanding of the system.  The old man’s face and Rari’s face fit perfectly into the formula of expression-driven silent cinema, as do select shots here and there like the second one I posted above – and props to Murnau for not taking the easy way out with a tacked-on happy ending – a fate he regrettably couldn’t avoid in “The Last Laugh.”  It’s an incredibly bleak ending that seems to suggest that tradition’s a dangerous thing that almost has an iron grip on love and individuality, or something like that – either way, it came out of nowhere and brought me out of my bored stupor, so kudos to the film for that at least.  But these moments that scream ‘Murnau’ are way too few and far-between.  One moment, the film wants to be documentary-like, showing tribal life in all its glory, and later, it wants to be completely plot-driven once Matahi and Rari encounter hardships as penniless fugitives living in paradise.  When we see documentary-like realism, I wanted to know more about the protagonists – I thought they weren’t fleshed out enough.  And when those protagonists finally do have the spotlight, it’s contrived – a romantic story that had already been well-treaded in just 1931, and other than those damned interesting faces I mentioned, ho-hum acting that for once doesn’t have much of Murnau’s visual flair to hide it.  Where’s the exuberant energy and zeal for life that made “Sunrise” and “City Girl” so downright joyous?  Where’re the attention-grabbing angles and lighting, practically perfect but never too attention-grabbing, that made “Nosferatu” and “The Last Laugh” such visceral experiences?  Here we get bits and pieces of fine expressionism, sprinkled amongst footage of natives hunting and dancing that might as well be shown on the Discovery Channel, rather than fleshing out a tale of forbidden love.  “Tabu” has two ways of telling a story that clash with each other, and neither one is all that successful.  From my point of view, Murnau was in a lose-lose situation – a sad way for one of the finest talents in the history of filmmaking to so abruptly and tragically end his career.


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