The director of Nosferatu, Faust, The Last Laugh and Sunrise has an immaculate CV – but this, the final entry in his filmography, initially appears to be an oddity. In truth, it’s a masterpiece. FW Murnau’s cinema had been shaped in the creative hothouse of 1920s Berlin, and survived the transition to the commercially driven colossus of Hollywood beautifully, although his ego did not. Bruised by poor notices for the three films he had made in LA for Fox, Murnau took a leap into the unknown, embarking on a project unlike any other he had attempted. He sailed for Bora Bora with the documentary film-maker Robert Flaherty to shoot a colour movie, a part-talkie called Turia.
Following a script rewrite, money trouble and endless technical difficulties, Turia would become Tabu, a silent, black-and-white love story; Flaherty’s role would be downgraded to lab-bound assistant; and Murnau would plough his own money into the project until he had something he could sell to Paramount for distribution. The most shocking, and tragic, twist of all was that Murnau would not live to see its premiere. The director died in a car accident in March 1931, a week before Tabu’s first public screening.
Had Murnau lived, he would have seen his film, trimmed in often baffling ways by Paramount, fail to make back its costs at the box office, although the cinematographer Floyd Crosby would win the Oscar for this, his debut. In 1940, his mother sold the rights to Rowland and Samuel Brown, who rereleased it with further cuts and yet again failed to turn Tabu into a commercial success. It was not until the early 70s that a full nitrate print of the original film was discovered – and the process of restoration and appreciation began in earnest. Now we can watch Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, the full Tabu, and thanks to 21st-century technology, we can watch it at its sumptuous best.
Masters of Cinema has released Tabu previously on DVD – this is a beautiful Blu-Ray revamp of that pristine transfer. The sea spray sparkles and the chiaroscuro effects of those ominous shadows that are cast across paradise are given their full weight. It’s a seductively beautiful film; almost gratuitously, exotically gorgeous. In fact, I’d say the stills you see here don’t do it justice. Solidly expressionist lighting techniques transform a sun-drenched paradise into a locus of intangible terror, at the same time as the play of light on the luminous seas, on the young lovers’ beautiful bodies, entrances the eye. The film itself is a tempter, a Mephistopheles, and you’ll find it impossible to resist. The Hugo Reisenfeld score that Murnau spent his last pennies on is here too. It’s luscious, but on another occasion I’d be intrigued to see how a modern magician would accompany this film.
The plot concerns the stranglehold of fate, set cruelly against the joy of young love. We are far from the realm of documentary here – Tabu is every bit as artful as any of Murnau’s other films. Reri and Matahi live on a remote and unspoiled south sea island, and they fall suddenly, but utterly in love. The idyll is shattered when a messenger from another island, the sinister, hollow-faced Hitu, announces that Reri is “tabu”: she has been chosen to be a vestal virgin of sorts, a totem of chastity and purity – a symbolic tithe demanded from one island by the other. Reri must be wrenched from Matahi and their budding love affair is also “tabu”. The lovers escape, and wash up at a different kind of island, one that has been colonised, but Hitu, as eerie and relentless as Count Orlok, is on their trail …
That story, which folds folklore into tragedy, is told with the minimum of intertitles and the maximum of grace. Murnau’s unchained camera roams across ocean and sand but falls upon a painterly, elegant composition with each frame. Those title cards, as the invaluable commentary by R Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens makes plain, provide narration, and documentation, but not dialogue. Many silent films invite the hoary adjective “balletic”, but it is apt here: the vigour of the crowd scenes, the erotic, tragic interplay of the forlorn principals and that haunting villain. This voiceless melodrama, as exotic and strange as it may seem, will slide right under your skin.
Far from an oddity, this is a Murnau film to the core – there is enough joy, tragedy and self-sacrifice here to make you believe we’re back in Berlin. There’s even a dance scene that screams Sunrise; and those themes of paradise found and lost can’t help but recall Faust. Apparently Murnau, thoroughly disillusioned with Hollywood, planned to return to the South Sea Islands to make more films after Tabu – his 1930s career could have been truly fascinating.
So it’s worth buying Tabu for the film alone, but this is a typically generous Masters of CInema package. As well as the aforementioned commentary there is a short German-language documentary Tabu: the Cinematic Legacy, a short travelogue from 1940 that uses footage from Tabu, a handful of out-takes, and a weighty booklet featuring archive material and essays.
Tabu is released on Blu-Ray (£19.99) and DVD (£17.99) by Masters of Cinema on 24 June 2013. Available to pre-order now