Once Rousseau had taught disenchantment with civilisation, sophisticated Europeans came increasingly to look on ‘primitive’ peoples and their values not just as curiosities but as bearers of deep truth about humanity. Science followed on the heels of sentiment and for a hundred years anthropologists fed lore of the remote into our culture. Chronologically Tabu falls midway between two classic books of the genre, The Golden Bough by JG Frazer and La Pensée sauvage by Claude Lévi-Strauss, and connects the two in its themes of the sacred virgin, ritual prohibition, and profanation. We are no longer able to gaze upon the pre-industrial world as these adventurers did. The questioning of relations between Europe and the post-colonial world made anthropology a self-conscious enterprise by the 1980s; ethnographers shunned the South Seas and stayed closer to home. Enjoying the exotic may still be fun today, but it feels like a shallow activity. And the shrinking of the world has made us more aware of our similarities with people in remote cultures and less likely to see the differences as deep.
So Tabu is a souvenir of another world. It is not the Polynesian islands that are remote now, but the age of old-fashioned amateur anthropology. And yet, while it might be possible to get exercised about objectification and exoticization in the film if one tried, it is hard to see anything demeaning in its portrayal of the Tahitians. We can’t know whether the scenes the non-professional cast enact seemed to them authentic representations of their world, but the energy and grace with which they get stuck in are entirely disarming. For better or worse, the emotions which drive the film are not alien but recognisably those of Western stories of tragic young love. Matahi and Reri (supposedly the characters were simply named after the actors) are touchingly expressive as the lovers under the shadow of taboo.
The film is said to be much more Murnau’s work than producer Robert J. Flaherty’s, but to me it resembles the latter’s Nanook more than the former’s Nosferatu. Distinctively German, perhaps, is the robust enthusiasm for fresh air and nudity: Murnau is not particularly scrupulous about observing the convention that naked breasts should be concealed by a lei or flowing locks. I suppose there must sometimes have been an element of sexual tourism in viewings of this film, but I found it minimally prurient. There seemed to be a certain harmless relish in the depiction of muscular male divers in their trunks, but perhaps that was just me.
The plot is nothing inspired, but it flows easily enough from one bravura set-piece to another. Particularly memorable are: the opening scene of mixed bathing high jinks by a waterfall; the whole village (even a toddler and his pet pig) canoeing out to meet a visiting ship; the East-meets-West scene at the port, where bare feet, working shoes, and high heels mingle on the dance floor, while champagne is drunk (fatefully) from bowls; and the unforgettable night swim with which the film concludes. Floyd Crosby certainly earned his Oscar for cinematography: I’d say this is what makes the film.
Tabu is one of the last great silent films; this kind of innocent romanticism, non-verbal characterisation, and unhurried delight in the visual were perhaps harder to carry off once film narrative shackled itself to dialogue.