Tabu - A Story of the South Seas Review

F.W. Murnau wasn’t the first or the last artist to be creatively inspired by the unspoiled exotic beauty of the South Sea Islands, seduced by the inherent eroticism that lies within the close relationship to nature enjoyed by its people. Made in 1931 in the latter days of silent cinema, in authentic locations and using only local inhabitants, Tabu must surely however have been the first feature film made there. Working with documentary maker Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran), Murnau clearly wanted to do more than just make it the background for a love story and intended to capture the essence of the indigenous way of life in the Polynesian islands with a degree of authenticity. Such is the power of Murnau’s artistry and the spell that the islands and its people doubtlessly cast over the filmmaker, that the resulting film demonstrates a liberating vitality far removed from the director’s earlier films. One can only imagine the impact Tabu must have made when it was first shown to western audiences in 1931, and its qualities are no less evident today.

Subtitled, A Story of the South Seas, Tabu’s storyline is certainly very much based around primitivism, myths and ancient traditions, but the human element of the story is clearly recognisable and to the fore. A 'Garden of Eden' introduction shows the free and uninhibited lifestyles of the natives of the island of Bora-Bora with toned, athletic young men fishing in the bountiful seas and young dusky maidens bathing together in fresh streams. The innocence and the freedom enjoyed by one couple, Matahi and Reri, is however inhibited by one of the islanders traditions. Hitu arrives bearing an important message from the Chief of the Fanuma that the tribe is looking for a young woman to become one of the sacred virgins of the island gods, and Reri has been chosen for the honoured position. Having been chosen, the young woman now becomes Tabu and must remain untouched and undefiled by other men. Matahi isn’t pleased by the choice and has no intention of giving Reri up, even though breaking of the Tabu will mean death.

The initial documentary impulse behind Tabu thus gives way to a not untypical story of impossible love (emphasised by the division of the film into chapters entitled ‘Paradise’ and ‘Paradise Lost’), and the dangers faced by those who break the rules of society, but the social background of the story remains important and is not merely there for colourful exoticism. Certainly many of the scenes filmed by Murnau are now familiar ones – the natives leaping into their row-boats and racing out to meet an incoming boat, beautiful young maidens wearing only grass skirts and flower garlands around their necks – but the director manages to capture the essence behind them that reflects another way of living tied to tradition and ceremony. The film makes the most of these characteristics, showing their fresh, young, healthy, toned semi-naked bodies full of vitality, persuasively emphasising the attractions of such a lifestyle, Murnau achieving a high level of authenticity through use of indigenous non-professional actors.

The contrasts however are just as important, and although the division between Paradise and Paradise Lost chapters is played out between the unspoiled islands and civilisation, Murnau makes more subtle distinctions than that. Hitu, the old man who comes and destroys the idealised love between Matahi and Reri can be seen as a patriarchal element, an authoritarian presence, as well as effectively representing old age and death – all the things that young love has to fear and struggle against. Wordlessly, Murnau finds many other visual ways of representing this division – in light and shadow, in movement and stillness, in motifs and parallel situations, but always making use of the natural elements of the location and not relying on normal cinematic devices. The ease with which Matahi spears a fish and equally skillfully lands his partner with the casting of a flower garland onto her head at the start of the film, for example, is contrasted with the dangerous diving – also Tabu - that he is forced into in the latter part of the film, his struggle now with death itself from the depths of the sea. The thought process that goes into this decision is filmed by Murnau, entering into Matahi’s head in a bravura sequence that rivals the floating musical sequence in the director’s earlier masterpiece The Last Laugh.

Tabu is an incredibly rich film for such analysis and examination, particularly considering Murnau’s own homosexuality and the theme of forbidden love against forces of oppression that can be read into this, as it can into many of his other films. More than that however, the film – Murnau’s last, the director dying tragically in a car accident while on his way to attend the premiere – is of interest also for the remarkable new direction it promised in the director’s work and in the progress of cinema itself in the latter days of the silent period. Dispensing with intertitles and revealing any exposition through journal entries, scrolls, newspaper articles and signs only, and avoiding silent actor mannerisms and exaggerated gestures through his use of a non-professional cast, the viewer is scarcely even aware that they are watching a silent film, so expressive and complete is Murnau’s visual language - assisted it must be said by an outstanding soundtrack. Tabu consequently is a unique and remarkable work, showing a vigour, dynamism and a progression that - with the death of Murnau and silent cinema – would never be taken to the next level.

Tabu has been previously released in the UK on DVD as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series in its full uncut and uncensored version restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung. The new Blu-ray release is a BD50 disc with an AVC encode at 1080/24p.

The image on the original DVD version was already very impressive, but there is nonetheless a noticeable improvement in the quality of the BD image. In terms of overall appearance, the comments made about the DVD release hold true. Not unexpectedly considering the age and history of the film, the image is a little bit soft and some marks and damage are present, but it still shows remarkably few issues. In one or two scenes whites can seem a bit glaring, but there is still an excellent level of detail, showing picture information and a good range of tones – blacks are strong and contrast levels seem perfect in most parts of the film. There are a few thin tramline scratches and one or two marks, but they only appear briefly and are scarcely noticeable. The majority of the print incredibly looks flawless. There are no evident digital issues with the transfer either. The progressively encoded image shows superb stability, flowing smoothly and there are no signs of edge-enhancement or artificial touching-up of the image.

The High Definition presentation however improves on the Standard Definition DVD in a number of areas. The aspect ratio presents Tabu for the first time in its original 1.19:1 ratio as opposed to the 1.33:1 of the DVD release. This might not seem significant, but there is extra information at the top and bottom of the screen, and even some additional image to the sides, all of which give a much improved view of Floyd Crosby's compositions. There is of course additional detail in the image in HD but rather than simply allowing more grain detail, this new transfer actually makes the image more natural and film-like, with tones closer to the original negative and less like a film print. The aspect ratio improvements combined with this level of detail really make all the difference here.

(Screenshots used in this review are from the DVD edition and not representative of the quality or aspect ratio of the new BD release)

The audio track does not have the kind of clarity you would normally expect from a new score, so it would seem that the original Hugo Riesenfeld score has been restored and used here – thankfully, since it is an integral part of the film. Despite the fact that it shows a bit of harshness and distortion at the edges of the higher registers, and there are one or two bumps, it still sounds remarkably good, conveying the full force and vitality of the film. Upgraded to uncompressed PCM 1.0 (48kHz/24bit) for the Blu-ray release, it's even more apparent just how important the soundtrack is to the film in the absence of any sound or dialogue.

There are no actual intertitles in the film, but made in the USA for Paramount, the film includes the original English screens with translations for all scripts used in the film.

Commentary by R. Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens
The combination of the two commentators is a good one, providing a broad overview of the film. Stevens – doing most of the talking - provides the academic analysis and interpretation of the film (with many references to Nosferatu), noting the motifs and identifying the id and super-ego elements, which is fine if you find that kind of thing at all important to be able to appreciate the film. Dixon Smith on the other hand revels in the film’s other indefinable qualities. Between the two of them however, they also manage to impart useful information about Flaherty’s involvement, the scenes that were censored and the various versions of the film that have been previously available. Both unanimously believe that this is the definitive version of the film and that it is probably the Murnau’s greatest masterpiece. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment when you see how good the film looks in this new edition.

Carried over from the DVD release is the short documentary Tabu – The Cinematic Legacy (14:53) from the same documentary series Die Sprache Der Schatten (The Language of Shadows) as the episode on the Masters of Cinema disc of Nosferatu. It covers the background of Murnau’s journey to the South Sea Islands, making use of stills, unused footage and showing alternative takes. It's in German with optional English subtitles.

New to the Blu-ray release is a collection of Outtakes (15:26), complete with commentary in German and optional English subtitles. Over 10 hours of unused footage has been recovered for Tabu and this short feature compares some of the footage shot by Robert Flaherty and Floyd Crosby to gain some clues to the nature of the filming and the choices made in alternative takes.

Also new to the Blu-ray release is an original short documentary film, Treibjadg in der Sudsee (11:43), made in 1940 from unused footage shot for Tabu, showing the islanders on a fishing hunt. The opening description of the film's content is in German, but English subtitles are also provided.

An 80-page booklet contains a wealth of information on the background and the making of the film. Much of the material is direct documentation, transcripts and reproductions of articles, diary entries, letters and telegrams from Murnau and Flaherty, testimony and interviews from cinematographer Floyd Crosby and Robert Flaherty’s brother David. There is also a fine essay by Scott Eyman, which summarises the production history and is filled with interesting notes and anecdotes about the making of the film. Also well worth reading are the full treatments of Tabu and Turia, the original abandoned outline for the film which, with its pearl-diving episodes closely resembles the second half of the actual film. All this is supplemented with many photographs of the filmmakers on set and illustrated with stills from the film.

There are many essential reasons why you ought to see F.W. Murnau’s Tabu - for its importance as the final film of an important director, for the innovations it makes in visual storytelling, and for its position as one of the greatest achievements in the medium of silent filmmaking and indeed in the entire history of cinema. Mostly however, you will want to see this just to experience truly inventive, passionate filmmaking that still has the power to move and impress. Tabu’s qualities have never been more evident than in this incredible restoration, presenting the film for the first time in its definitive, uncut and uncensored form, looking as fresh and vital as when it was first shown. The upgrade to High Definition manages to make significant improvements to an already impressive DVD release with finer detail, more natural tones and a better aspect ratio that really shows the beauty of the compositions. If you've yet to experience this remarkable film, this new BD release gives you one more essential reason, and even includes a few additional features that contribute to the best possible presentation of a truly great film.

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