Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Matahi, Anne Chevalier, Hitu
Director: F.W. Murnau, Robert Flaherty
Audio: Dolby Digital mono 1.0
Subtitles: English intertitles
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Image
Features: commentary track, trailer, outtakes, short film on Reri, stills gallery
Length: 84 minutes
Release Date: September 3, 2002

"Real art is simple but simplicity requires the greatest art." - F.W. Murnau

Film ****

Too many great directors throughout film history have died before their proper time.  Perhaps no loss was more tragic than the death of German director F.W. Murnau at the young age of 42.  Perhaps the best director of the entire silent cinema, Murnau had created numerous films which were among the most lyrical and beautiful of all silent films.  While Nosferatu (1922) remains his most well-known work (and probably the most famous silent film of all), his other German films, such as The Last Laugh (1924) or Faust (1926), are equally as impressive.  And lest we forget, Murnau's first American film, Sunrise (1927), is widely considered to be the greatest silent film ever made and is still included by Sight and Sound on their list of the ten greatest films of all time.

Murnau's final film was Tabu (1931).  Released well into the sound era, it was a risky venture yet an artistic triumph nonetheless.  Although Tabu was primarily created in Murnau's vision, it was not entirely his work alone.  The American director Robert Flaherty, often regarded as the father of the documentary style of filmmaking, was the film's co-director.  Flaherty had originally started his career as a globe-trotting surveyor, a background which served him well for the creation of his silent masterpiece Nanook of the North (1922), the first significant "documentary" film.  For Tabu, Flaherty assisted with the story and camerawork and heavily influenced the documentary-like nature of the film itself.  Flaherty's style would eventually become a huge influence on the cinéma vérité style of filming in the 1950-60s, and his last film, Louisiana Story (1948), was also for a time included on the Sight and Sound list as well.

In truth, Murnau and Flaherty had vastly differing directorial styles.  Whereas Murnau was well-schooled in the craft of filmmaking and quite meticulous in the planning of his scenes, Flaherty had no training in filmmaking at all and often photographed hundreds of feet of random footage, which he later assembled coherently in the editing room.  Their differences eventually caused their initial collaboration to end on somewhat poor terms, but regardless, Murnau and Flaherty had plans to work together again on an upcoming project.  In fact, Murnau had been quite pleased with the experience of on-location shooting and had vowed during the production of Tabu never to work in a studio again.

One common trait both directors possessed was their frustration with Hollywood's interference with their artistic visions.  Murnau's previous film, City Girl, had been butchered by the Fox Studios, which had also cancelled Flaherty's last project mid-way throughout production.  Consequently, in the spring of 1929, Murnau and Flaherty formed their own independent partnership in which they would share equal screen credit and equal profits for their films.  The first collaboration, Tabu, would employ a cast of non-professionals and would be set in the South Seas, far from Hollywood.

The story of Tabu would be essentially a simple story of forbidden love between a young native fisherman and a young island maiden, Reri.  At the time, the best fisherman in the South Pacific islands was a young man named Matahi, so he was cast as the male lead, suitably named Matahi.  Anne Chevalier, only 16 at the time of production, was to portray Reri.  Neither had ever acted before (and Tabu would be their only film), so it was to Murnau's credit that he was able to extract such powerful performances from both young performers.  Furthermore, since Tabu was to be a silent film (quite rare by the early 1930's), Murnau was able to concentrate on the visually powerful narrative of the film.  Given Flaherty's affinity for this sort of cultural material as well, the completed product of this unique collaboration was to become one of the last truly great silent films.

Tabu's story commences on the island of Bora Bora and is divided into two chapters - "Paradise" and "Paradise Lost."  "Paradise" opens with a shot of Matahi, posed upon the sands like a classical statue with spear in hand.  He tosses it off-screen, and in a scene typical of Flaherty's open form style (implying the presence of off-screen information), we later learn that Matahi has successfully speared a fish.  The fishermen are jubilant about Matahi's catch, and their celebration takes them inland, wherein they stumble upon a group of young women bathing beneath a waterfall.  Matahi decides to join the women and, in doing so, meets Reri.  There is an immediate attraction between the two, the quintessential love-at-first-sight.  However, this love can only bring Matahi and Reri sorrow by the film's conclusion.

Later that same day, a messenger harkens from the sea.  He is Hitu, the wizened herald to the chief of these islands.  According to ancient traditions, a young maiden is to be selected who will remain chaste from the desires of men until the end of her days.  Hitu brings word from the chief that Reri has been selected to be this pure maiden and is to accompany Hitu back to the chief's island forevermore.  There, her virtue will remain sacred and will bring honor and fortune upon the islands for years to come.  Any man who would dare to break this bond of trust would invent death upon himself and Reri as well: "Sacred is Reri, from this time forth she is Tabu, to break this Tabu is death." 

This news clearly distresses our young lovers.  The other islanders, however, throw an elaborate ceremony to commemorate this honor.  Matahi performs in the ceremony, and the quiet but observant Hitu, who is the guest of honor, is not oblivious to the obvious feelings between Matahi and Reri.  Later that evening, under the cover of night, Matahi steals Reri away from under Hitu's protection, despite a frantic search to locate the two lovers.  The following dawn brings disgrace to the islanders.  They meekly attempt to offer a substitute maiden, whom Hitu does not accept, and "Paradise" concludes on a close-up of Hitu's contemplative, quiet expression.

The second chapter, "Paradise Lost," continues the story shortly thereafter.  Matahi and Reri have exiled themselves on a distant island, where Matahi has become a successful pearl diver.  Though no one is aware of the true identities of the two lovers, the curse of the tabu is not far behind them.  Sooner or later, Hitu will surely find them.  The tabu, of course, will mean death for both Matahi and Reri, unless Reri accompanies Hitu back to the chief.  This conflict weighs heavily upon her mind and provides the internal conflict and tension for the remainder of the film.  I will not reveal any more of the plot, other than to say that Murnau bravely avoids a happy, conventional ending to his tragic love story.

While Tabu is clearly rooted in a realistic setting, Murnau enhances his simple tale with subtle, allegorical overtones that enhance the film's emotional impact.  Tabu has an almost mythical quality about it, and the typical denizens of classic mythology are represented several times in the film.  Right at the start, there is Matahi poised like a classic warrior.  He is the vulnerable human hero caught in a struggle against the will of the gods, as symbolized by Hitu and the old traditions as well as the forces of nature which become more prevalent in the latter half of the film.  Furthermore, Hitu is greeted in his initial appearance as though he were a revered messenger from the gods.  However, his subsequent appearances take on a ghostly, dreamlike quality, particularly during the film's final nocturnal sequence, in which Hitu appears almost as Charon, escorting Reri across the River Styx.  In the early waterfall sequence, the bathing maidens are as water nymphs.  Later, in an impressive sequence, a portion of a local lagoon is made "tabu" due to the presence of an unknown underwater creature, which Matahi must eventually confront in his efforts to protect Reri.  While Flaherty's influence may be felt most strongly in the documentary-style of the first chapter of the film, the second chapter, with its powerful imagery and its progressively expressionistic style, is clearly Murnau's.  His confident direction, his meticulous construction of every sequence, and the gorgeous composition of his shots all embody Tabu with a universal appeal that is appreciable even today by modern audiences.

Tabu premiered in New York in late March of 1931.  This experimental film by Murnau and Flaherty quickly became an international success, but while Flaherty continued to make great films for two more decades, Murnau never knew the impact of his final masterpiece.  He had died in a car crash on March 18, 1931, shortly before the film's premiere.  At the young age of 42, Murnau's death had deprived the cinematic world of its most gifted director, and we are left only to speculate about what other masterpieces Murnau might have crafted had he lived.

Video * 1/2

Viewers accustomed the pristine gloss of modern films will probably dislike the appearance of this film.  However, as far as silent films go, Tabu is about par for the course.  Happily, the print used for the transfer is in good condition.  While it does possess the dust and scratches that are inherent to silent films, relatively speaking, they are very few in number.  The DVD transfer of Tabu was made from a preservation film copy that had originated from a quality print in the Paramount film archives.  Fortunately, this print has no glaring patches of nitrate disintegration.  In general, the film has decent black and white contrast levels, although the overall softness of the image will tend to obscure details at times.  Oddly, the same footage that runs in the main menu is sharper and brighter, albeit with a lot more debris.  Was a different film print used for the main menu?  Nevertheless, Tabu's beautiful cinematography (by Floyd Crosby, who won an Academy Award for his efforts) remains to this day a wonder to behold.

The overall transfer is okay.  I noticed no compression artifacts or breakup.  However, strangely the film doesn't always look to be in exact focus, as though the very top portion of the film had warped during the transfer process.  Also, the frame can become quite shaky at times, jittering enough to cause a brief headache.  Again, this is pretty much par for the course with silent films.  Silent film enthusiasts can accept it readily, although the casual viewer may grumble.

Audio * 1/2

Considering that Tabu was generally a silent film in the early sound era, you can't expect much here.  In essence, Tabu was photographed as a silent film but it was outfitted with a musical score for its release by Hugo Reisenfeld, who had also composed a score for Murnau's Sunrise.  This musical score has a somewhat cartoonish quality early on but becomes better as the film progresses and even occasionally draws from famous classical works (such as Smetana's Moldau for the extended sequence involving Hitu's arrival by sea).  Although there is some singing as well, there is no true dialogue, per se, in Tabu.

The sound quality is about what you might expect from such an early film.  There is an audible hiss throughout as background noise, and the soundtrack generally has a scratchy quality.  It is also pretty thin and monophonic.  The sound will not impress any audiophiles, but fortunately, Tabu doesn't depend on sound to relate its story.

Features ***

There are a number of nice extras here.  Tabu's original theatrical trailer is included and has a quaint 1930's feel to it.  Also included is a stills gallery with a large collection of production photographs, followed by pages from the working script.  Unfortunately, the text really isn't legible unless you have an exceptionally huge TV.  Presumably, these pages are the same one which may be viewed via Adobe Acrobat (if you are using a DVD-ROM).

Tabu has a commentary track by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom.  In fact, she also does the commentary for the outtakes and the short film on Reri as well.  The commentary provides a lot of historical context concerning the production of the film, problems with the distribution company, and some history about director Robert Flaherty.  Silent film enthusiasts will be pleased with this commentary.

The next feature is comprised of roughly 23 minutes' worth of outtakes.  They are alternate shots from the film and so do not represent actual deleted scenes.  Although a pre-screening print of Tabu still exists somewhere in Germany with about 300 feet of additional footage (cut before the US premiere), that is not the footage shown here.  In any event, much of the outtake section focuses upon the waterfall sequence.  The commentary track, again by Bergstrom, is quite illuminating as it draws from Flaherty's own words in describing his working relationship with Murnau and their distribution troubles for Tabu.

Last, there is a short film on Reri.  It is basically a screen test of Anne Chevalier, who often adopted the name of Reri after the success of Tabu, walking around a city park or sitting on a bench.  Bergstrom provides the commentary again, this time discussing Reri's successful stage revue career after the release of Tabu.


Tabu was the collaborative effort of two of the finest filmmakers in cinematic history.  Possessing a poetic, natural beauty rarely seen in films anymore, Tabu was Murnau's swan song and a perfect marriage of two styles - Murnau's visual, expressionistic genius and Flaherty's realist, cultural traditions.  An absolute must for silent film enthusiasts!