Sunday 14 October 2012

Tabu (1931)

With Tabu we are back to one of my favorite silent movie directors Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Unfortunately this is not his best movie, but it is still sufficiently different from other movies of the era that is deserves some special mentioning.

First of all this is still a silent movie despite it being from 1931 and thus long into the sound film era. This may seem odd, but is linked to the peculiar story behind Tabu.  This movie started several years before when Murnau in his new yacht cruised around in the Pacific Ocean and fulfilled a childhood dream when he gathered a film crew to make a movie with and about Polynesians. At this time sound movies were very new and the technology was not anywhere near ready to be taken out of the studio and certainly not ready for outdoor recordings on a Polynesian island.

To me, already deeply embedded in the sound era it is odd to go back to a silent movie, especially when the music and particularly the sound effects added seem pasted on and artificial. Especially during partying the sound is more reminiscent of a saloon dancehall, complete with shouting and stamping, than natives on Bora Bora.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Tabu indeed takes place on these Polynesian islands and revolves around a young couple who start out as the happiest and most careless people in the world in their tropical paradise. Soon however an emissary from the Über-boss arrives declaring the girl, Reri (Anne Chevalier), a sacred virgin to be consecrated for the gods and thus tabu. Reri is not at all happy about that and the boy, Matahi, abducts her from the ship and together they escape in an open canoe.

The second part of the film, called “Paradise Lost” transpires on another island where Reri and Matahi have found refuge. Matahi is an accomplished pearl diver, but without any sense of money he throws big parties and indebts himself over his head. When the emissary, Hito, shows up here as well they must escape again, only they do not have the money to go. Matahi breaks another tabu by diving for exceptional pearls in shark infested waters. He finds his pearls but too late, the girl is gone.

Except for the ending, which is not exactly Hollywood friendly (though probably to Murnau’s taste) the story in itself is not so exceptional. It is a fairly simple story. The interesting elements here are the cinematography and the story behind the movie.

It was a novelty to make a movie placed on tropical islands, not some studio creation, but really to go there and film it with a local cast. This could easily have become another “home video”, but Murnau, being a perfectionist, got the natives to appear as actors. Their actions do not seem forced and the pictures are beautifully made. Floyd Crossby, the cinematographer, did get an Oscar for his work, but I would credit Murnau for this success. Being an old master of German expressionism he knows a thing or two about using the pictures to convey a message and reduce the use of intertitles to a minimum, partly by using letters written or read to tell us what is going on, partly smart use of light and shadow and body language.

Having said that, he does not reach the heights he achieved in “Der Letzte Man” or “Sunrise”, but less will do.

Behind the camera the drama surpassed what went on in front on the camera. Murnau had initially brought Robert Flaherty into the project and formed a production company together with him to film “Turia”. Flaherty had experience from Tahiti and knew an old local legend Murnau wanted to film. Flaherty was a well-known documentarist (Nanook of the North) and thought to be an asset. Arriving on set however the two of them turned out to be a very bad match. Their ideas of how to make the film conflicted thoroughly. Flaherty wanted to make a naturalistic documentary, Murnau wanted to make a cinema movie in the German tradition. When their sponsor went broke in the big crash of 29, Murnau redefined the movie, threw in his own money, changing the name to “Tabu”, sending home much of the Hollywood crew and made the new movie entirely to his own liking. Flaherty was sidetracked and resented that greatly. Murnau’s own cameraman, originally just an assistant to Flaherty, ended up filming most of the movie. An interesting consequence of the much reduced budget is that Bill Bambridge, the film technician would also double as the policeman of the movie, and shedding his coat, the local musician and entertainer.

Despite Murnau’s “westernization” of “Tabu” I still think it carries a very authentic nerve. Maybe it is just that this island paradise fits our prejudice of what it should be, but it looks right. Those people look so charming and happy there on the island and the culture chock on the pearl diver island also seem very authentic. A nice detail is that Murnau does not shy away from showing the native women’s breasts during the festivities. Anybody with even a glimmer of experience with native Polynesians will know that this is how it is and that there is nothing sexual in it. I just wonder if that was allowed to get through to the final American release. The DVD sports a PG disclaimer saying that the film contains natural nudity and that some scenes are unsuitable for small children. In the way it is shown in the movie I would say it is particularly suitable for small children and that it is their parents that might have a problem.

Returning from the islands Murnau bought out Flaherty and sold the movie rights for a pittance. “Tabu” was not a box office success, but Murnau would never know. Before the premiere in New York he was involved in a car accident and died from his injuries.

Thus ended the story of one of early cinema’s greatest directors. I wonder if he too became a victim of the Tabu?

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