F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) made six or seven great or near-great films in his all-too-brief career. All save his last film were tightly controlled, studio-stylized works that (although they were beautiful and often moving) were thoroughly planned artifice. One might even use the contemporary expression “tight-assed” in describing them. His final film, Tabu (1931), however, seems almost the complete antithesis. Tabu is one of cinema’s simplest, most lyrical and masterful expressions of a despairing romanticism succumbing to the realities of a world from which none of us can escape.
The original idea was for the film to be jointly made by Robert Flaherty and Murnau. Flaherty, the great ethnographic documentarian, had already met critical success with another Polynesian project, Moana (1926). Although Flaherty was a romantic in his own fashion, the two personalities did not mesh, and Flaherty somewhat bitterly sailed for home. Murnau, after the relative imprisonment of Weimar Berlin and mad Hollywood, loved Tahiti, Bora Bora, and the smaller islands. The informality and laxity of strictures on behavior (including sexual ones) seemed a kind of rebirth.
Murnau had very little money and relatively primitive equipment to work with. He was freed, however, from studio-imposed shooting schedules and all the annoyances that are amply provided by film capitals. Here, he was mostly his own man, although entertaining visitors like Henri Matisse could not have been all that arduous. Working with newly minted cinematographer Floyd Crosby out in the lush wilds of Polynesia must have been totally different from his former dependence on the claustrophobia of studio sets with vast numbers of production people and hangers-on lurking about. Crosby went on to win an Oscar for Tabu, launching a career that ranged from classic documentaries for Pare Lorentz and Joris Ivens to Roger Corman exploitation films.
In the May 31, 2010, issue of The Nation, Paula Findlen reviewed The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes. The book, subtitled “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,” traces Charles Darwin’s inspiration to set sail on his voyages of discovery back to Joseph Banks, who had accompanied Captain James Cook on the Endeavour to Tahiti in 1769. Banks spent three months on the island before returning home and becoming the leading figure in British science during the Enlightenment. On Tahiti, in Findlen’s words, “Banks had temporarily become a different man. Freed from the trappings of his own society, he had allowed himself to be seduced by Tahitian customs, the seeming ease of social relations and the rhythm of rituals. Banks…did not conceal its effect on his psyche.”
The Canadian film historian Tom Waugh suggests that only in Tabu did Murnau “seem to have peace and a little happiness in surroundings which abolish the guilt-feelings inherent in European morality.” Murnau was homosexual, and Waugh believes that he attained a degree of spiritual liberation by observing the guiltless behavior of the “natives” during his extended sojourn in the islands, where Murnau lingered as long as possible before returning to California.
Whether attributable to Murnau finally finding or accepting a truer path to his genius, or to something as mundane as not having any money, Tabu is a great treasure to the lovers of cinema. Its haunting imagery is intrinsically lovely, its rhythms unique, its denouement overwhelming. Part of the legend of Tabu is that Murnau moved a sacred rock to get a better camera placement. In any event, back in California, while driving back from getting money from his erstwhile star, George O’Brien (Sunrise), for the music and effects track for his film, Murnau’s car went off the road and he was killed. More than a little bit of the future potential of the cinema probably died with him.