Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

“I must go. Hitu is here and waits for me. You will die if I do not obey. I will go so that you may live. The tabu is upon us. I have been so happy with you far more than I deserved. The love you have given me, I will keep to the last beat of my heart. Across the great waters, I will come to you in your dreams when the moon spreads its path on the sea. Farewell.”

‘Tabu: A Story of the South Seas’, directed by F. W. Murnau in 1931, is a silent drama set in the South Seas islands. Matahi, a young islander, falls in love with Reri. Unfortunately, Reri has been promised to a neighbouring chief and is unavailable. Matahi and Reri escape from the island and after an arduous journey they end up at a French Colony. Matahi takes up diving for pearls and they slowly make a living despite the unscrupulous locals. Then the past catches up with them and Matahi is forced to fight for Reri. Murnau’s movie is filled with lush cinematography and the setting is exotic, the alieness of the island life is played upon throughout. But the structure and the subtexts are Miltonic. The first half titled ‘Paradise’ shows the islanders’ prelapsarian existence: a simple life of fishing and dancing. The second half, ‘Paradise Lost’ shows the central couples’ fall from grace after sampling wine in the colony. This is certainly a strong structure to the story, but also has the strange effect of highlighting the colonial skew of the film. The French are presented as a corrupting influence on the islanders, but it is presented in a patronising way, corrupting by taking away their innocence. The other aspects of the film make up for this however. The performances by unprofessional actors found on the islands are genuinely moving, particularly at the end of the film when Reri and Matahi are pulled apart and Matahi begins a doomed pursuit. There is a real and unexpected sense of drama in these scenes lifting the film beyond being a mere National Geographic-esque documentary of island life.

Would I recommend it? It’s Murnau’s final film, so is worth watching for that. The unusual setting and the way that Murnau manages to film the island life make this movie extraordinary.

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