The final film F. W. Murnau made was Tabu: A Story Of The South Seas. Filmed on location in Bora Bora, the film is one of the last masterpieces of silent cinema. In the liner notes to the Masters of Cinema release, Murnau himself is quoted as saying:
“It is ridiculous to say that talking pictures will disappear again. No invention that shows itself to be of value will ever be rejected. The talking picture represents a great step forward in the cinema. Unfortunately, it has come to soon: we had just begun to find our way with the silent film and were beginning to exploit all the possibilities of the camera. And now here are the talkies and the camera is forgotten while people rack their brains about how to use the microphone.”
We’ll never know what a talking picture by Murnau would have been like. Murnau died in an auto accident one week before the film’s world premiere in 1931. Tabu doesn’t just stand as an achievement, however, in terms of the great master’s final work: even within his oeuvre, Tabu is incredibly rich visually and perhaps more innocent than any of his other films. It is a masterpiece by any definition of the word. Early in his career, Murnau’s films helped to define the German film industry, and his films helped define German cinema of the 1920s as some of the greatest ever. Following this, Murnau spent time making films for William Fox in Hollywood. But after the critical success of his first film, 1927’s Sunrise, his last two films ran into a variety of production problems, and while filming Our Daily Bread (later: City Girl), he left the project and Hollywood. He would wash up in Bora Bora, away from the city and a large population. And he would make his final masterpiece.
Tabu, summarized, is a relatively straight-forward tale: two young lovers have a bond forbidden by a national officer (on spiritual, not legal, grounds), and they run away. Of course, they cannot win, and they are torn apart in a tragic final sequence. The girl agrees to go back to protect her village once the elder finds her. She abandons her love in the home they had made for each other after running away. He tries to get her back, swimming out to sea to get her, but he falls short, and drowns.
But the visuals and the way it plays out, as well as analyzing the motifs of the film against Murnau’s films, truly reveals how special this film is.
Was Murnau more critical of the city or the country? In Nosferatu and City Girl, the country is the basis of the evil or the disruptive. In Sunrise and The Last Laugh, the city shows signs of evil. But Tabu takes place in its own world. Neither city nor country, where modern civilization has not yet reared its ugly head (the title cards at the beginning announce this much). And yet, even within this isolated geographic location, someone comes and disturbs the peace of our protagonists. Is there nowhere in the world where one can escape?
Where one does not fear outside influence? Something from the outside always seems to interfere in a Murnau film. But in Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Sunrise, characters overcome their tormentors and their demons. Murnau’s happy endings often feel natural, with two equals, at odds with each other, and the protagonist winning the day. But not in Tabu. In Tabu, there is no reconciliation, and the main character’s attempt to fight falls tragically short.
One must wonder if Murnau’s people deserve their fate. Indeed, there is very little consistency it would seem, as the bad fate that befalls the people in Nosferatu and Faust doesn’t seem their own doing. In The Last Laugh, our man is merely the victim of age. In Sunrise, yes, a man is forced to make amends for the wrong he’s done to his wife, but in City Girl and 4 Devils, the temptress is merely someone the family does not approve of. Tabu breaks this rule in Murnau, however. Our male character doesn’t lose his woman until he has violated the second taboo of the film: not to dive for pearls in a particular area of water. He breaks this taboo and barely lives. When he returns home, his woman is gone, and as he chases her, his fate is sealed.
It’s hard not to draw parallels to Murnau’s career and the film. The beautiful woman (the right to make a film the way he wants?) is off-limits to him. Murnau frequently ignored the rules of Hollywood, going over schedule on 4 Devils, buying a farm for City Girl. He was a true artist, not merely a filmmaker for the studio. When our male protagonist gets shown an “IOU” he is responsible to deliver that strands him on the island, making it impossible for him to buy a ticket off the island, is that Murnau being told rules he cannot fathom from the studio system. I am merely speculating, but it could be.
Beams of light. Shadows. And an old world. Tabu has all of the makings of the great films of Murnau. Stunning visuals. Tragic ends. Tabu is a masterpiece by Murnau.