There’s something fitting about F.W. Murnau recoiling from the coming of the talkies by making a film about a technologically primitive people. Having made the ultimate studio-lot epic with Sunrise, Murnau headed out into the wild where executives couldn’t force a boom mic on him, and his vistas of the Polynesian seas and the people who dwell in them shows the director at his loosest. Scaling back his perfectionism to contend with the elements, Murnau crafts images that suggest those of a young, untested director, shooting with a small budget and nonprofessional actors only a few years after Fox built the biggest film set to that point for their recruited genius.
The story is simple to the point of universality. It’s a Romeo and Juliet narrative framed through the prism of island life, with Reri’s (Anne Chevalier) virginity placed under total protection by tribe elders to preserve her sanctity for the gods, much to the chagrin of her love interest (Matahi). The pair flees this repressive system only to find themselves, unluckily, in a Murnau film, with all its attendant focus on the corrupting influences of material greed. Murnau’s tragedies all revolve around this topic, and it’s telling that circumstances reverted the director to his pet subject after his previous film showed characters overcoming such solipsistic self-destruction.
The recycling of narrative tropes common to both Murnau and his co-writer, Robert J. Flaherty, blunts whatever claim the film might have to anthropology, but the feature is most fascinating as a showcase for a master challenging himself. The reliance on natural light forces Murnau, one of the great wielders of shadow, to deal with intense sunlight and shifting light positions, and compositions regularly display a conflict between keen framing and the predictability of the objects being framed.
Murnau concedes his exacting detail to unpredictability, and the opportunity to see how sudden shifts in things like wind and brightness necessitate adaptability from the director marks the true legacy of the film. Remarkably, Murnau manages to produce a rough facsimile of his typically controlled images, be it the early, open frames of young love radiating from the couple or the suffocating blocking of islanders exploiting the hapless Matahi or of elders toying with lives to maintain power.
Tabu ends on a deeply disturbing note of futility, of Matahi swimming after his abducted love until he finally loses strength and drowns. It’s easy to relate that image to Murnau’s own doomed resistance to the powers that be, a fight that ended when the director died in a car crash just before the film’s premiere. But that would ignore just how far he pushes himself outside his comfort zone, and how deftly he incorporates music as a wry substitute for oral communication, such as a match between a scout’s cry for backup and a trumpet call. This isn’t a director admitting defeat on the eve of his untimely demise; it’s the start of a new chapter that remained tragically unwritten.
Scratches and lines are common to Kino's restoration, a natural byproduct of an 85-year-old film shot outdoors, but overall this is a healthy transfer. The many washed-out frames retain enough detail to be legible, while some pillow shots of palm trees and beaches are so crisp they could pass for being shot on a soundstage. Hugo Risenfeld's score still has some hiss and artifacts, but they don't detract from the ingenuity of the musical commentary on the visual action.
Most of the extras are devoted to the ample footage that F.W. Murnau filmed in the Pacific, including Hunt in the South Seas, a 1940 short that incorporated unused material from Tabu. The outtakes and omitted footage tell a story of the effort expended to whittle docudrama into melodrama, demystifying the film’s patina of realism while underscoring how quintessential a Murnau project this ostensible departure was. Also included is "The Language of Shadows," a 15-minute German feature on Murnau’s work on the film and the troubled production.
F.W. Murnau’s final film is one of the last significant works of the silent-film era, as well as an unexpected experiment from a director who unfortunately never got the chance to build on its breakthroughs.