Tabu: A Story Of The South Seas

Tabu: A Story Of The South Seas


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

To begin with this looks like Health & Efficiency for gay guys, except they keep their shorts on. A group of half-naked, lean, fit, handsome, impossibly cheerful, young South Pacific islanders are dancing about the rocks in bare feet with wooden harpoons, spearing fish. It is a scene of idyllic wonderment. All that’s missing are the Busby Berkeley babes.

Robert Flaherty, who made the documentary Nanook Of The North nine years earlier, agreed to co-direct with the German expressionist FW Murnau (Nosferatu). It seems an odd pairing, to say the least. Their collaboration didn’t last beyond that opening sequence. Flaherty was relegated to assistant cameraman, while Murnau went on to tell the story of a doomed love affair between one of the fishermen and a girl called Reri (Anne Chevalier).

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Unlike the married couple in Nosferatu, these two express genuine passion for each other. Chevalier’s acting is not great, but since this is silent cinema, she is excused exaggerated, emotional responses. Her lover Matahi is the main man while she tends to mope in the corner of grass huts, or in a waterfall pool with her girlfriends.

The theme of religious intolerance is surprisingly topical. There are no teddy bears called Mohammed, but there is an old man called Hitu, who represents the king of the islands. His job is to choose a fresh virgin to take the place of the no-longer official virgin, who has died, or been sacrificed, or deflowered. He chooses Reri and announces to the islanders, “She is Tabu. To break this Tabu is death.” This means neither hanky, nor panky, for just about ever, and certainly no Matahi.

Reri is heartbroken. Matahi is enraged. He defies Hitu and steals Reri from under his nose. They flee to another island, ruled by white men, where Matahi is much appreciated for his pearl diving skills. The fear of Hitu is ever present and this tension retains its grip on the film until the old man’s sailboat glides into port like a silent curse.

Murnau’s ability as a storyteller is demonstrated to perfection in this, his last film – a few days before the premiere, he was killed in a car crash. The early section, which includes young men in grass skirts doing what girls do, would not look amiss in a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movie, with Dorothy Lamour as a high priestess from Skull Island. Once the doomed lovers make a run for it, the film changes and there is much to admire, particularly the photography.

Reviewed on: 12 Dec 2007
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FW Murnau's tale of love on the run in the South Seas.
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Director: FW Murnau

Writer: FW Murnau, Robert J Flaherty, Edgar G Ulmer

Starring: Matahi, Anne Chevalier, Bill Bambridge, Hitu, Jean, Kong Ah, Ah Fong

Year: 1931

Runtime: 84 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


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