Tabu (1931) is equal parts Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau: it’s two creators (even though Murnau received final directing credit). There is a transformation throughout the film, as the style shifts from the former director to the latter’s temperament; accompanying the stylistic change is an overall shift in the mood of the piece, and it is this “shift” that is the focus of the movie: how idyllic fantasy turns into guilt ridden nightmare. The images from the first half of the film reappear in the latter half, their contexts changed, the naivety corrupted. Tabu's imagery is one that continually develops throughout the course of the film, evolving as do the characters and the story.
The first part of the film is heavily Flaherty influenced, almost seeming like a remake of his 1925 film Moana. (In fact, the name of the ship is “Moana,” and there are other visual links, as well.) We are in the South Seas, on a tropical island that, like Nanook of the North and Moana, seems unaltered by time. For all we know, it is a pre-industrial time. When word arrives that one of the island’s women is to taken away and become a sacred virgin on a neighboring island. For her tribe, this is a cause for celebration; for her male lover, this means disaster. Should she not fulfill her ritual obligation, she will break the taboo and have to be killed.
When the two lovers escape to another island, there is an abrupt shift in the film. No longer the idyllic idealism of their home, the new port is bursting with the affects of modernity: economics and business, as well as integration. The land is filled with Chinese, English, and half-castes. In this new land, a whole different set of taboos develops and ensnares our protagonists.
Flaherty and Murnau were both concerned with the connections between moral catharsis and nature: Nosferatu is quelled by the morning sunrise, Nanook must continually fight weather and animals to survive, and even the lovers of Sunrise experience a rebirth after a near-drowning experience. In Tabu, one finds that economic and ritual taboos have even destroyed the hope of water’s renewal. The boyfriend goes to the water, first, to find pearls to sell in order to get he and his girlfriend out of debt; he returns to find she has left, returned with her father to finish the ritual. He then rows after their boat, jumping ship to latch on to a loose rope from their boat; while holding on, the father cuts the rope, and the boyfriend drowns.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.