This year the Toronto Silent Film Festival will present F.W. Murnau’s Tabu – A Take of the South Seas on March 30. All silent film fans know F.W. Murnau, master of German expressionism and power house of silent cinema. Wait a minute – did I just say German expressionism? That poster for Tabu doesn’t look very German expressionistic. It doesn’t look it, because it ain’t, as my grandma used to say.
Even hardcore silent aficionados and Murnau buffs might be unfamiliar with Tabu. Because Murnau died in a fiery crash shortly after making Tabu, before the film was even released, it reads like an oddity in his filmography. Had Murnau survived, maybe Tabu would be hailed as the turning point in his stylistic development. But he didn’t and we’re left with Tabu – a footnote in a way (though it shouldn’t be) and a rarely screened silent classic.
Tabu is a departure for Murnau in setting and style, yet not so much in subject matter. Set in Bora Bora, Tabu relates a tragic tale of two young lovers. Reri, is an “untouchable,” forbidden fruit because she is pledged as thesuccessor to the island’s sacred virgin, and Mathai is the young fisherman who loves her anyway. The two battle to escape the tabu that Reri represents with, well, I won’t say predictable, but not wholly unexpected consequences. It’s a familiar emotional terrain to viewers of Sunrise, but entirely different in rhythm.
Originally, Tabu was a joint effort between Murnau and Robert Flaherty, though Flaherty eventually dropped out. Tabu retains his documentary-like ethnographic approach, however, and Murnau committed to using locals as actors, to dazzling effect. Whatever the woes in production, Tabu is a fresher, more relaxed Murnau, drifting away from his (one might say) obsessive studio stylization to a free, easier style. There is a lot of speculation and postulation that Bora Bora offered Murnau the man a kind of spiritual alternative to heavy-handed European moralism that freed him. It’s difficult to nail that down, because as I noted, Murnau wasn’t long for this world.
Whatever the back story and external circumstances, Tabu is a treat. It is a haunting, lyrical, and beautiful film from the man who most internalized the peculiar and strictly visual language of silent cinema. I have never seen this movie on a screen with an audience, and I am so pleased that Toronto Silent Film Festival is offering up the opportunity. Get your tickets now.
Tabu – A Tale of the South Seas
Music: Original 1931 release musical track
Friday March 30, 2012
The Carlton Cinema
20 Carlton Street Toronto
Plus: “Animation from the Lawless Days” tba with Musical Interpretation by Bill Lasovich
The Toronto Silent Film Festival Program
March 29 – Our Dancing Daughters
March 31: Blood and Sand
April 1: 1000 LAFFS: Playmates
April 2: The Italian Straw Hat
April 3: Variety
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