Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) Director: F.W. Murnau
Tabu is F.W. Murnau’s final film before his tragic death due to a car accident in 1931. He died in a hospital a week before the film’s release. Murnau is the quintessential example of a cinematic genius and the tragic loss of his life is our loss, as well. Tabu is portrayed as a documentary of island natives (the film was shot on location in Bora Bora and Tahiti) but it is largely a fictional story.
Tabu is a fascinating and beautifully shot film. However, the backstory brings this film to life in a certain way – with Murnau’s turbulent relationship with Hollywood and his financier, his infightings with his co-director on the film in Robert Flaherty, and both of them nearing the brink of bankruptcy right up until the film’s release, followed by Murnau’s tragic and untimely death right before its release. Tabu is an important film to the history of cinema, especially for those, like myself, who are great fans of F.W. Murnau’s brilliant career as a film director.
The plot is told in two parts: the first is called “Paradise” which portrays an optimistic and nostalgic yet simple life among island natives. It tells the story of two lovers (using minimal title cards) who fall in love until the woman is taken away for religious reasons. In Part II, or “Paradise Lost,” the two lovers go to a colonized island. The second part is a modified critique of western colonization.
The story was co-written by Murnau and Robert Flaherty (director of the famous and controversial silent docu-fiction film, Nanook of the North in 1922). They met through Mr. Flaherty’s brother. At the time, Murnau was coming off the backs of two unsuccessful Hollywood films, including his film, City Girl in 1930. He was under pressure to produce a successful film. In addition, Murnau was having trouble convincing his financier to front more than $5,000 of the funding up front, so he decided to self-finance the film. He eventually fired his entire Hollywood film crew and trained natives to use the equipment appropriately. These challenges, plus considerable script revisions due to legal concerns, led to a tumultuous working relationship between Murnau and Flaherty. Flaherty had expected to be the co-director of the film (he directed only the opening scene) and he found Murnau to be arrogant and selfish. The two greatly disliked each other and interestingly enough both Flaherty and Murnau went broke completing this film. Indeed, Flaherty sold his shares of the film to Murnau for $25,000, and the funds were provided by a sale from the studio, which allowed Murnau to return to Los Angeles and use the last of his money to edit the film before its release. As we know, Murnau tragically died one week before the release of Tabu in 1931. The film was not a financial success, however it won a single Academy Award for Best Cinematography.