Tabu: A Story Of The South Seas (1931)

F. W. Murnau’s innovation and experimentation with ‘dramatic angles’ as he called them liberated  cinema from static confines to new methods of expressing emotion and narrative, and led the director become one of the most respected artists of his time. Tabu: A Story of the South Seas was his first foray firmly in the sound era and, sadly, his last. A tragic car accident on the Pacific Coast cut short the possibilities of Murnau’s flowering career.

Tabu remains a tortuous mid point, echoing towards an uncertain creative filmography and concurrently harking back to idiosyncratic Murnau traits; beautiful cinematography, a love story engulfed by tragedy, and expressed without a single spoken word. And Tabu, like Murnau’s previous work from the bustling city of Sunrise to the eerie nightmare of Nosferatu’s home, is set in a fantastical world.


Co-directing this piece was documentarian Robert Flaherty, the filmmaker behind the world’s first documentary Nanook of the North. Combing Flaherty’s talents for naturalism and Murnau’s exquisite cinematographic eye, Tabu emerges as an archaic docudrama simultaneously rooted in the naturalism of the luscious island of Bora Bora hidden deep in the heart of the South Pacific, (even going so far as to exclusively use natives as actors) whilst weaving a melodrama throughout.

Tabu is certainly not as evocative as Murnau’s earlier highly technical pieces, sequences such as floating through the marshes in Sunrise are astonishing demonstrations of narrative and technical capabilities, but what Tabu lacks in innovation, it makes up for in purity. Murnau conveys the invigorating frenetic rituals, lush fauna and islanders playing in fresh waterfalls with wonderment.

The magical fairytale perception of the idyllic paradise is furthered by Murnau’s innovative sound design compacted with his dislike for dialogue. Human voices in Bora Bora are substituted for musical instruments, in one scene, a native sentry alerts the island to an arriving ship, but his voice only emits a horn. As the islanders gleefully rush across the sea to the visitors, the diegetic crash  of the waves rolling are replaced by grand classical scores from the likes of Smetana’s Mà Vlast.The title could aptly have been retitled as Tabu: A Song of the South.


Murnau exploits the wonders and innocence of the idyllic to contrast the ultimate trials of mythic Boy and Girl. The lovers fall for one another in the commencing moments of the picture, but quickly their love faces the ultimate obstacle. The Girl is proclaimed the chosen maid by an old warrior named Hitu. This holy position means death for any man that lays a hand upon her, the Tabu is upon them.

Tabu’s story is Murnau’s specialty, it unfolds with simplicity, grace and poignancy, though it falls short at its climax.


The Boy discovers the Girl’s letter declaring her intention to leave with Hitu’s in order to spare Boy’s life. Boy dashes after the boat sailing towards the horizon and swims after with all his might. Miraculously, he catches hold of a rope trailing alongside the boat, but Hitu calmly cuts the tether. Boy continues to flail after his love as they drift away, before finally succumbing to exhaustion and inevitably drowning.

Murnau was a stickler for a downbeat ending. His previous picture The Last Laugh was an infamous scenario in which the production company enforced a happy resolution upon the picture. Murnau and writer Carl Mayer finally gave in, but created an ending sickeningly and cynically joyous to get their own last laugh. In Tabu, Murnau finally got his way.


I am no crusader for happily ever afters, tying every loose end in a neat bow to ‘wrap up’ can blight otherwise promising and intriguing films. However, endings should be formulated based on the tone of the overall piece, and Tabu is such a downhill slope of unfortunate events, that ending without a respite of happiness leaves a sour note in the melody.

Overall it is a simple but excellently executed romantic tragedy of blossoming and troubled romance in the wonders of the South Pacific. Despite a weak ending, Tabu is indicatively and idiosyncratically Murnau’s, a sad and fitting farewell.

Classic Moment… 

The Boy braces himself. Hidden in the depths of the Pacific are two certainties, a pearl which will solve all of his problems, and a man eating shark. T he Boy takes one last deep breath, he must do this for his love, and plunges deep down in to the sea, a knife in hand…

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