Thursday, March 23, 2006

Tabu (Murnau, 1931)

On the one hand, F.W. Murnau’s death at the age of 42 years old is one of the cinema’s great tragedies. Who knows what masterpieces Murnau would have created with an extra 20-30 years of time to explore his craft? What contributions would Murnau have made with the innovation of sound? How would he have responded to the rise of the Nazis? The questions are delightful to consider. And yet, watching his films, it is hard to imagine how the advent of sound would have made his films any better. Whereas many of his contemporaries overloaded their films with intertitles that disrupted the dramatic rhythm and broad acting full of gesticulation, Murnau made the silent film seem effortless. While some silent films seem held back by their inability to speak, Murnau’s films thrive. His ability to draw modern viewers into tales of surprising complexity without a tool now considered mandatory is testament to his extraordinary talent.

Murnau’s final film, Tabu, with its award-winning cinematography is a both a dazzling showcase of his effortless cinematic control and a deeply satisfying story that in its simplicity carries the stirring power of myth. Murnau employs a cast of non-professional islanders to tell the story of a young woman who has been claimed by a powerful older man for marriage upon threat of death to anyone who dares touch her or look at her lustfully. Naturally, there is a younger man whose passion cannot be quenched and dares to break the ‘tabu’. It is worth noting that Tabu, with its juxtaposition of true love and harsh societal expectations bears more than a passing resemblance to Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, the canonical dramatic work that would receive its first production just two years later. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Tabu is how well Murnau (with the help of collaborator Robert Flaherty) has immersed himself in the culture of the South Sea Islanders. There are sections of Tabu that have the quality of documentary because they detail the daily interaction of the locals. But where other filmmakers might be content to gawk from afar and marvel at ‘strange’ customs, exploiting their exoticism, Murnau provides a thoroughly involving narrative that demonstrates both his knowledge and his compassion. It is clear that his novice actors trust him and his two leads in particular give performances that are not just passable, but comparable with the work of professionals. The way he flings himself into the spirit of the dance … the way her mood shifts from despondent to joyful – these are moments that could not be topped by the best their generation.

Tabu is a rare film that is both utterly romantic in spirit and yet also unwilling to wring viewers for emotional reaction. The events which transpire are entirely logical in the way they unfold. We are moved by a pure and simple expression of human truth – honest, but not unfeeling. All of this builds to an unforgettable gesture of love and devotion and an ending that (unlike Murnau’s The Last Laugh) is clearly unfettered by studio intervention.



Blogger Mazen Khaled said...

Actually Murnau CHOSE not to make this a talking film. Sound had already been used in film for a few years when this was made.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

Yes, I am aware. You're missing the larger point. He would have made an adaptation to sound eventually. Chaplin did.

8:31 PM  
Anonymous Claudia said...

how could he not choose to make it a silent movie? What language should his actors have spoken??? Duh.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

Yiddish, obviously.

1:22 PM  

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