A select moment or two of “Tabu” is wonderful to look at, and represented Murnau in his prime (ironic, since this was his final film before dying far too soon, and far too deep into his prime as a filmmaker, in an auto accident).
In Tahitian, a tabu is a designation of sacredness. Anything—object, place, or person—can be declared tabu, and it’s a serious matter. Break a tabu and things will go badly for you. Try to escape the consequences, and they will follow you. So take a hint and stay within your bounds.
This is such a gorgeous movie that I almost didn’t notice how little I cared about the plot watching it for the first time.
Tidbits from the very good commentary by R.D. Smith and “the” Brad Stevens: Robert Flaherty directed and shot the opening fishing scene, then Murnau removed him from the project, finding his direction of drama unsatisfying. Floyd Crosby (would go on to shoot tons of MST3K fare and X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes), who worked with Flaherty on White Shadows in the South Seas, took over the camera. Story is a retelling of the Garden of Eden myth. Visual motif of descent grows increasingly darker. Contrast between motion and stillness. Islanders paddling furiously towards giant ship, their vibrant humanity vs. the faceless ship (called Moana!) which seems from afar to be guiding itself, on which sits Hitu, surrounded by stillness. The ship brings a spreading plague as surely as the one in Nosferatu. Heterosexual couple threatened by a powerful individual, theme present in most Murnau movies – in this case, central relationship is more sexual + physical than in the others. Tabu is unprecedented in Murnau, having a character attempt to oppose fate – unsuccessfully, “gives the film much of its tragic quality.” When they escape to the larger island and meet white-influenced civilization, similar to the pure-country vs. corrupt-city themes in Sunrise and City Girl. Murnau didn’t like intertitles, used none in this movie except for diegetic writings, all of which hold negative connotations.