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Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) is the last film directed by F. W. Murnau. It is a tragic love story set in the south Pacific.

Reri and Matahi are young lovers enjoying life on the island of Bora Bora. Their happiness is interrupted when a messenger named Hitu, dispatched by the "lord of all the islands", arrives. Hitu brings a message from the king that the sacred virgin woman of the island of Fanuma has died, and that Reri has been selected to take her place, Reri being a virgin of noble blood. This is not good news: "man must not touch her or cast upon her the eye of desire", on pain of death.

Matahi, distraught at the prospect of losing Reri forever, kidnaps her from Hitu's boat. They make their way to an island run by the French, and Matahi gets a job as a pearl diver. He's good at it, but he doesn't know how to handle money. And worse, Hitu is after them.

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Tabu was a silent film. The rest of the American motion picture industry had abandoned silent films completely by 1929, but Murnau, who had nothing but contempt for talkies, set sail for Tahiti, and paid for the film himself. He used Tahitian natives for both his cast and his crew, except for cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who won an Academy Award for his work.

Murnau was killed in a car accident in California in March of 1931, one week before Tabu premiered.

Compare White Shadows in the South Seas, a film shot three years before this one in the same place, dealing with many of the same themes. Compare Tanna, made 84 years after Tabu and set in Melanesia instead of Polynesia, but also dealing with young islanders, Star-Crossed Lovers, who defy the will of their chief.


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Tropes:

  • Capitalism Is Bad: Matahi is ruthlessly exploited by the French islanders, forced to work long hours for little pay.
  • Cat Fight: Reri and another girl get into a hair-pulling fight by the river. Their sarongs get very wet and clingy.
  • The Chosen One: The message from the king names Reri as this. It's a bad deal.
  • Dances and Balls: The island has a ceremonial farewell dance party for Reri.
  • Downer Ending: After Hitu tracks them down and says he will kill Matahi in three days if she doesn't come back, Reri gives up, and agrees to return. Matahi, finding her "Dear John" Letter, dives into the water and tries to overtake Hitu's boat by swimming. He tires in the water and drowns.
  • A Fool and His New Money Are Soon Parted: Matahi has no conception of money or debt. After finding a pearl on the French island, he hosts a huge party for all his friends, and winds up very very deeply in debt.
  • Locked Away in a Monastery: Sort of. But effectively this Reri's fate, to be taken away and doomed to be the eternal virgin for life, a symbol of purity and virtue, never able to fall in love, get married, or have children.
  • National Geographic Nudity: Most of the time the girls wear sarongs, but when the island has a ceremonial feast prior to Reri's departure, the women dancers wear only grass skirts.
  • Noble Savage: Deliberately averted by Murnau. The Tahiti islanders have a society with a rigid caste system, poor role for women and rigid conformity. It's no more or less noble than the "civilization" of the French colony.
  • One-Word Title
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Murnau Takes a Third Option. The islanders aren't Noble Savage, they are exploitative of its own people, and force citizens into conformity. The french islanders are ruthless capitalists and racists.
  • Sexy Soaked Shirt: See Cat Fight above.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Reri and Matahi can't catch a break.
  • Title Drop: Reri is proclaimed "tabu" by the king. She is to remain chaste, and no man may touch her. (Yep, this is where we got the word "taboo".)
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