The last of four films Murnau made after moving to America – the others being the Oscar winning Sunrise, the excellent City Girl and the now-lost Four Devils – Tabu marked something of a departure for the master director. He travelled to Bora Bora near Tahiti with documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty. Setting out to make a docufiction film as co-director, it quickly became apparent that Murnau wanted complete control and Flaherty was bought out of his share of the film.
The result of this is an opening sequence that seems very much like a documentary film, with native islanders (almost every actor in the film was an untrained native, along with most of the production crew) fishing, playing and acting naturally. According to the extensive booklet notes (thanks again Masters of Cinema), this was the only sequence Flaherty directed before he encountered technical issues with his camera and brought in cameraman Floyd Crosby to assist. The upshot of this was that the rest of the film was the responsibility of Murnau.
Subsequently, we then pick up on a more traditional method of storytelling. A girl named Reri (Anna Chevalier) is chosen by aged emissary Hitu of neighbouring island Fanuma to be the replacement maiden to the Gods. She is to be transported to the island to live there free of any kind of relationship; from this point on she is “tabu”. This is terrible news for both Reri and her lover Matahi, who defy this command and escape the island to a French-colonised island nearby.
The story of two lovers remaining together despite adversity is reminiscent of both Sunrise and City Girl, and other than the unfamiliar setting Murnau is on safe territory. It doesn’t feel stale, but it’s certainly the least dynamic of the three available Hollywood films. Both lead characters give assured performances in their roles despite a lack of experience. Matahi never worked on another film following this release. Anne Chevalier worked on two subsequent films (Polish film Czarna Perla and an uncredited role in John Ford’s The Hurricane) but neither are as fondly remembered as Tabu.
F. W. Murnau’s final film was actually released a week after his death. Whilst working on the sound for the film, Murnau was being driven up the coast from Los Angeles by a 14-year-old Fillipino servant and was involved in a car crash, dying a day later in hospital. It’s a shame that this was his last film and a tragedy that his life was cut short so early, robbing the world of countless more exceptional films. He had actually spent most of his final months on the island Bora Bora, having enjoyed his time there so much.
The definitive version of Tabu is available on Masters of Cinema Blu-ray and DVD dual-format release, packed with extras (deleted scenes, a short film directed by Flaherty using leftover footage, a documentary) and with an immaculate transfer. It also restores scenes that were cut before its original release, as well as those taken out in subsequent cuts over the intervening years (the explanation for all of this is in the extensive booklet that’s included in the box)