Tabu (1931)

Tabu (F.W. Murnau, 1931)

The final film of the German master F. W. Murnau, Tabu is a tale of love and dedication of two lovers. Co-written with Robert J. Flaherty, the film was supposed to be an entire collaboration between the two directors. However, after directing the opening sequence Flaherty was relegated to writing and later would be selling his part of Tabu to Murnau for 25 000$. It blends the documentary approach of Flaherty’s masterpieces and the plotted love stories of Murnau’s classic vision of storytelling. Added to all this, Murnau died of a car accident a few days before the premiere of the film.

Those are the gossips around the film but as a whole, Tabu is the last masterpiece of the director who offered such landmarks as Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Faust, and Sunrise. Mastering again montage, storytelling, and the silent film medium, Murnau demonstrates a lesson of filmmaking. With almost no cards between scenes, and a few indications by the few letters, the plot is clearly told by the construction of images and the smart editing.

Murnau’s story is quite simple and very Germanic in its approach. This is a timeless plot of impossible romance and the rigidity of destiny decided by the Gods. This is the kind of tale that the Grimm brothers could have written and it is easy to relate to. Indeed timeless and also universal to have lovers facing the fate and having to transgress laws and rules to be together.

I can honestly state that I am a fan of Murnau’s films and I have seen Nosferatu at least a dozen times. His grammar, his themes, and his influence is vast and huge. It was a pleasure to watch all his films on the list. Of all his directing credits Tabu might be in the ones I esteem the most. Along the aforementioned Nosferatu, Faust, and Sunrise we are in the major leagues. No wonder, Andrew Sarris in his American Cinema, ranked Murnau as one of the Pantheon directors alongside John Ford, Robert J. Flaherty, D.W. Griffith, Jean Renoir, and many other pioneers of the Art that is Cinema.
Tabu being the final film from a director that left us too soon proves that he still had gas in the tank and lots of films. However, History has proven that great Silent film directors could have a hard time with their passage to talkies. Look at D.W. Griffith who struggled to get work once sound was introduced to motion pictures. Since, Murnau was more at his ease with silent film this could have tainted his recognition amongst the greats.

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