Considering the obvious limitations that come with film making from the time period, Tabu really couldn’t be any better. It is narrative diffuse and free-wheeling in the best possible way and anticipates the more frantic cinematic style found in filmmakers like Werner Herzog. In addition, Murnau has Robert Flahtery helping out and he is probably responsible for the exquisite visuals. On the other hand, Murnau himself seems to be the one responsible for the more conventional dramatic touches that prevent the film from being great.
Lovers Reri and Matahi are separated when Hitu comes looking for a new virgin to sacrifice to God. The couple’s situation is tragic but soon cured as Matahi rescues Reri and the two explore the sea to find a new place to live. They stumble upon an island controlled by, as the intertitles eloquently put, the white man. Their conditions are no longer ideal, but they are now free and things begin to look up for the two as Matahi discovers a talent for diving. This bliss is short-lived, however, as Hitu quickly discovers the whereabouts of Reri and attempts to reclaim her. Meanwhile, Matahi’s language barrier is being exploited by the town regulars.
I’d be lying if I said I was completely emmersed in it, but it does still maintain a very strong atmosphere, which draws upon Flahtery’s experience as a documentary filmmaker. Visually, things are in top form as well. Much has been mentioned of Murnau’s dislike of intertitles and it’s very apparent here as no spoken dialogue is translated into intertitle form. Instead, the narrative relies on shots of written documents for exposition. For the most part, the story is downplayed in favor of a much more visual-driven style, which, if I haven’t made obvious already, is Tabu‘s greatest strength. As great as all that is, there isn’t anything for one to latch on to, emotionally. Certainly the couple’s fate is tragic and Anne Chevalier is extremely captivating. By the end of the day, it all seems inconsequential, even considering just how tragic the story is on paper. I suppose this might be a sign of the film’s age but I can’t really fault it for something explicable especially when it does take a lot of risks. A beautiful and influential film, but not mindblowing on its own terms.