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Image Entertainment presents
Tabu (1931)

"Sacred is Reri from this time forth. She is Tabu. To break this Tabu means death."
- The Old Warrior (Hitu)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: January 09, 2003

Stars: Matahi, Anna Chevalier, Bill Bainbridge, Hitu
Director: F.W. Murnau

Manufacturer: Ritek
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (National Geographic nudity)
Run Time: 01h:20m:51s
Release Date: September 03, 2002
UPC: 014381593129
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+C+D+ A-

DVD Review

In 1929, noted German director F.W. Murnau was ready for a change. He had come to Hollywood after making such classics as Nosferatu, Faust and The Last Laugh in his native Germany. Since then, Murnau had won an Oscar® with Sunrise (1927). But studio interference with Four Devils and Our Daily Bread led to extreme frustration culminating in Murnau walking from his Fox contract. Instead, he formed a partnership with documentarian Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North) to make one or more dramas about life in the South Seas. Although the relationship was stormy, it did result in the striking picture Tabu, shot on location in the South Pacific with nonprofessional actors.

Young Matahi falls in love with Reri (Anna Chevalier) on the island of Bora Bora. Their happiness is interrupted by the coming of a boat bearing an old warrior (Hitu). He comes to provide good news for the island: one of their young girls has been selected as the successor sacred bride of the gods. Unfortunately for Matahi, it is Reri, and a taboo is placed upon her; no man may touch her or look upon her with desire. This is not satisfactory for Matahi, so he steals Reri off the boat and they head to Papeete to hide out. In the second part of the picture, entitled Paradise Lost, they make their way as best they can in the world of the white man and the pearl trade. Reri and Matahi quickly fall into debt, however, necessitating Matahi to take up pearl fishing in shark-infested waters subject to another taboo. At the same time, the threat of the taboo on Reri looms over their heads.

The second half, featuring the fall from innocence, is not surprisingly more compelling and heart-rending than the idyllic first half. The protagonists' broad and innocent smiles quickly dim (except when they look at each other) as they come to understand that life is no longer as it was back on Bora Bora. The blend of Western and Polynesian life is devastating in its effect upon them, severed from their homeland and its natural abundance that they are used to. The parallels with Sunrise of the innocent and corrupt worlds is obvious; indeed, the thread can be taken back at least to Nosferatu in the contrast between the empty-headed Hutter and the cruelly scuttling Orlok. The threat of the taboo is well developed and has a much more palpable feel than mere superstition. That's particularly the case in the very real threat of the sharks in the second taboo, but the consequences of violating the first taboo are nonetheless serious as well.

The film is essentially a very, very late silent, in part due to the budgetary necessities of filming on location in the South Pacific, funded primarily by Murnau's own savings. There is little dialogue, and that is almost entirely limited to the reading of written material, which appears on screen in place of intertitles. The resulting mute show helps retain the verisimilitude of Matahi and Reri, who we would not expect to be able to understand. Keeping them silent helps maintain the illusion of documentary, aided by the attachment of Flaherty to the project. But of course the whole was fully scripted, though the naturalness of the participants makes its existence seem ethereal. The whole is fully believable and natural, and surely must have had a major impact at the time in contrast to the often highly-mannered acting styles prevalent in silent and early-talkie Hollywood.

Unfortunately, Murnau didn't live to profit from the success or enjoy the laudation that Tabu generated; he was involved in a car wreck and died shortly before the premiere. The tragedy of his death is underlined by the attractive visuals and tightly unified story that he presents here. What marvels might we have seen from Murnau in the rest of the 1930s?

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame black & white transfer is generally good. The original negative is lost, and this is a fourth-generation print, derived from a preservation negative made from an old nitrate print. Accordingly, there is a certain amount of dupiness and softness that is unavoidable. There is some annoying jitter and gatefloat, however, that should have been smoothed over digitally. The source print has the expected speckling and some minor frame damage. But this is as good as this picture is likely to get, and seems to have narrowly missed becoming a lost film. In that light, it's hard to fault the presentation too much. But when one looks at the razor-sharp clarity of the trailer and the beautiful textures and greyscale present there, it's quite sad that the feature apparently does not survive in such condition.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Mono(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: The original music score by Hugo Riesenfeld (who also scored Sunrise) is preserved here. It has the noise and crackle that tends to permeate early 1930s sound, and has a generally tinny and undistinguished audio quality, with diminished range. But again, this probably never has sounded very good and probably never will. Just don't get your hopes up.

Audio Transfer Grade: D+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Janet Bergstrom
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Still gallery
  2. Outtake footage
  3. Short film Reri in New York
Extras Review: Happily, Image and Milestone have provided Murnau's swan song with a fairly packed special edition. Front and center is a perceptive commentary by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom that delves into the history of the production, its stars and discusses the technique and symbolism without getting caught up in didacticism, an all too frequent problem with such professorial commentaries. Bergstrom also provides commentary over some outtakes (or more accurately, unused dailies). This commentary really delves into the problems between Murnau, Flaherty and their ostensible producer, Colorart, which appears to have failed to follow through on its promises and then claimed ownership of the film after Murnau's death. The whole is a tangled Hollywood story, but an intriguing one that's well worth listening to.

A three-minute snippet of Chevalier/Reri, apparently part of a later 1930s screen test, is also included, with further commentary describing her life after the making of Tabu. A still gallery is presented in slideshow fashion, with nearly fifty photos, a couple of posters and a few script pages with Murnau's notes and additions in the margins. These same pages also appear in PDF format in a folder on the disc for closer inspection.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Murnau's last film, a tale of doomed love, is given a generally attractive transfer—given the limitations of the preserved source material—with a ton of excellent extra materials.


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