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In his final film, F.W. Murnau presents the tale of two young lovers on the idyllic island of Bora Bora in the South Pacific. Their life is shattered when the old warrior declares the girl to be the Chosen Maid and it is forbidden for any man to even look upon her. Refusing to accept a life apart, they run off to another island, one that is decadent and westernized. The boy works as a pearl diver but not quite understanding the concept of money, is soon in debt. When the old warrior tracks them down they again plan to run away but in a desperate attempt to pay off his debts, the boy dives for pearls in shark-infested waters. The boy is successful but fate seems determined to keep the two lovers apart. Written by
Producer/director/co-writer F.W. Murnau died in a car accident a few days after starting work on the music for this film. It had its New York premiere a week later. See more »
[writing a goodbye letter]
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.
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The brainchild of German genius F.W. Murnau and documentary innovator Robert J. Flaherty (of Nanook of the North (1922) fame), Tabu uses the beautiful, untouched landscape of the South Pacific and employs non- professional natives to tell the beautiful story of love found and lost, and ultimately the death of paradise. Murnau died in an automobile accident shortly before the film's premiere and, thus, was his last gift to the movie-going world. Though it doesn't come close to the iconic expressionist horror of Nosferatu (1922) or the dark, satirical humour of The Last Laugh (1924), Murnau's epitaph is a simple, yet heart- wrenching cinematic poem.
The best spear-fisherman on Bora Bora is a handsome young man billed simply as The Boy (Matahi). His legendary status and unparalleled skill makes him popular amongst the islanders, and soon he has caught the eye of The Girl (Reri - who went on to star on Broadway as Anne Chevalier). They romance each other, but their affair is soon halted by the arrival of emissary The Old Warrior (Hitu), who proclaims Reri as the sacred maiden. She is 'tabu', and cannot be looked upon by any man unless he wishes the punishment of death. The couple brave storm and sea to escape, an arrive in a French-colonised island, where Matahi start work as a pearl diver. But their happiness is fleeting, and Reri is soon haunted by the image of Hitu, terrified she may have angered the gods.
The plot is hardly anything new, but Floyd Crosby's Oscar-winning cinematography makes Tabu more socially aware that the film may have you believe. The subtle yet crucial involvement of the French colonists, finding amusement at Matahi's lack of understanding regarding money and material wealth, is a clear swipe at the creeping of Western civilisation. Bora Bora won't stay pure for much longer. And that adds a gravitas to Matahi and Reri's plight - not only is their romance doomed, but so are their traditions and society. It is one of the last great silent films, a reminder that sound can be an unnecessary distraction, and that picture's can sometimes genuinely speak louder than words.
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