Director: F. W. Murnau
It's hard to imagine a more unlikely pairing than that of F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty. Mumau was a mystic, theoretician and fatalist; Flaherty, an optimist, a dreamer, an authentic naif who believed that man, to be free, must remain basic and simple. One thing they did share was disillusionment with Hollywood, Flaherty alienated from it, Murnau banished.
However, in 1929, the two formed a partnership, initially to make the film Turia, based on a South Sea legend about the contrast between the purity of the natives and the money-lust of the white man. That project metamorphosed into Tabu, which began production in Tahiti in 1930.
This rarely-seen masterpiece — "the terminally exotic classic" according to J. Hoberman — can now be savoured anew, courtesy of a newly struck, complete print by New York-based Milestone Film & Video. The reconstruction was partly funded by musician David Crosby, whose father Floyd shot the film. Floyd's oral history sheds light on how this extraordinary project came to fruition. According to Crosby, "Tabu was made by Murnau," Flaherty working on the story, the opening sequences of frolicking natives and supervising the lab work. The precise, detailed direction elsewhere was every bit Murnau's work (his script notes include such details as, "No shadows on sand in door opening!") Murnau eventually bought out Flaherty's share of the completed project, which was to be Murnau's last; he died the day after the film premiered.
Again and again in F.W. Murnau's metaphysical Manichean masterpieces (Nosfer-alu, Faust, Sunrise), the unselfish love of a pure, devout woman somehow saves the world (and helpless, captivated men) from vampires, plagues, devils and sluts. Not so Tabu, in which the dark eternal forces at last get their revenge. A young Tahitian couple flees from the woman's arranged marriage by sailing from island to island. But one day, a witch doctor from Hell arrives to take the girl back. He is Fate, Death Come a' Knockin', as terrifying and immutable an apparition as ever placed on the screen. The couple flee again but...
"While shooting Tabu around Bora-Bora, Mumau steered his camera crew into off-limits waters, an area declared Taboo' by the spiritually attuned natives. Back in California, Murnau died instantly in an auto accident. The cinema lost its greatest director of all who worked only IN the silent era." ♦ Gerald Peary
As a team, however, Murnau and Flaherty were doomed. Every aspect of Murnau's previous films had been rigorously predetermined, while Flaherty's preferred methodology was to find his theme in the course of observing and collaborating with his subjects. Murnau, who soon began to shape Tabu to suit his own aesthetic, wound up both bankrolling and controlling the project...
One wonders if Mumau wanted to escape not only Hollywood but the crass new world of the talkie as well. According to Flaherty's brother, David, who was also involved in the production of Tabu, the film was made as a silent for aesthetic, as well as financial, reasons. Murnau, the master of the moving camera, was disinclined to sacrifice visual style on the altar of the necessarily static sound film. The talking picture "has come too soon", he wrote to a colleague. "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 there are the talkies and the camera is forgotten, while people rack their brains about how to use the microphone." ♦ J. Hoberman, Premiere
Tabu and Cliang screen courtesy of Milestone Film & Video, New York.