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Tabu
(1931)
 

Already disenchanted after more than three years in the Hollywood studio system, F.W. Murnau left Fox and joined creative forces with an unlikely partner in the person of Robert J. Flaherty, director of Nanook of the North (1922) and other docudramas.

Following the lead of Flaherty, the duo decided to make a south seas film, without a preconceived storyline. The film which became Tabu (1931) would be written, cast and shot on location.

The story is a simple one of forbidden love. A young couple of Bora-Bora is caught up in the traditions of their people when the girl Reri is chosen as a sacred maiden to the people of another island and becomes tabu, off limits to the love of the boy Matahi. The couple attempts to buck the traditions, but cannot overcome them. Paradise turns to a hell when Matahi, risking death, retrieves Reri from the ship that was to take her away. Fleeing their people, the couple escape to another island which has adopted more western culture where Matahi become a celebrated pearl diver. Too simple to understand how, Matahi becomes indebted to Chinese merchants. Hitu has also followed them and threatens death if Reri does not return to her obligation. Seeking to escape, the couple attempt to purchase tickets on a leaving schooner but the debts accrued snatched away what money they had. Desperate, Matahi risks his life to dive in a tabu pearl bed for money to escape. But Reri resigns to herself to Hitu’s authority and goes away with him, chased by a swimming Matahi.

Problems in obtaining financing forced Flaherty and Murnau to drop plans to shoot the production in color, and without sound equipment. With determination to complete the film, Murnau put up the production money himself. The film was shot with a skeleton crew, two cameras and a couple of light reflectors. Technical problems are apparent in the film, as Flaherty’s camera began having problems (some footage remained in the final film). Cinematographer Floyd Crosby completed shooting the film (for which he received sole screen credit), and the results are, nonetheless and under the crude circumstances, an artistic triumph.

Returning to Hollywood in late 1930, Murnau edited the film in time for a January 1931 test preview in New York. Murnau raised money to engage Hugo Riesenfeld to write a music score, and final touches were completed by March 1931, when Murnau suddenly died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident on the Pacific Coast Highway. The film opened a week later in New York, and went on to become a critical and box office success worldwide. Crosby received an Oscar for his cinematography.

Apparent only in hindsight is the fact that, made against the surging trend toward synchronized sound, the lesser-known Tabu stands equally with City Lights (1931) as the last great examples of the American silent film. — Carl Bennett

2013 Masters of Cinema Blu-ray Disc edition

Tabu (1931), black & white, 83 minutes, BBFC Classification PG.

Eureka Entertainment, EKA ? (MoC 61), unknown UPC number.
Pillarboxed 1.19 aspect ratio, 16:9 AVCHD, one single-sided, single-layered Blu-ray Disc, Region B, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, English language subtitles, chapter stops, standard BD keepcase, £22.99.
DVD release date: 24 June 2013.
Country of origin: England
This Region B Blu-ray Disc edition of F.W. Murnau’s final film has been mastered from a 1080p HD video transfer of the new F.W. Murnau Stiftung and Luciano Berriatúa 75th anniversary restoration of the longer Murnau-approved version of the film, before it was cut by Paramount, with uncensored scenes and intertitles for the first time.

Supplemental material includes full-length commentary by R. Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens, a 15-minute German documentary about Tabu by Luciano Berriatúa, and an 80-page booklet with articles by Scott Eyman, Richard Griffiths, and David Flaherty, an interview with the film’s cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the original story treatments written by Murnau and Flaherty for Tabu and its aborted predecessor Turia.

North American collectors will need a region-free Blu-ray Disc player to view this edition.

 
United Kingdom: Click the logomark to purchase this Region B Blu-ray Disc edition from Amazon.co.uk. Your purchase supports Silent Era.
2013 Masters of Cinema DVD edition

Tabu (1931), black & white, 83 minutes, BBFC Classification PG.

Eureka Entertainment, EKA ? (MoC 66), unknown UPC number.
Full-frame 4:3 PAL, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc, Region 2, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, English language subtitles, chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, £22.99.
DVD release date: 24 June 2013.
Country of origin: England

This remastered PAL edition of F.W. Murnau’s final film has been mastered from a 1080p HD video transfer of the new F.W. Murnau Stiftung and Luciano Berriatúa 75th anniversary restoration of the longer Murnau-approved version of the film, before it was cut by Paramount, with uncensored scenes and intertitles for the first time.

Supplemental material includes full-length commentary by R. Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens, a 15-minute German documentary about Tabu by Luciano Berriatúa, and an 80-page booklet with articles by Scott Eyman, Richard Griffiths, and David Flaherty, an interview with the film’s cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the original story treatments written by Murnau and Flaherty for Tabu and its aborted predecessor Turia.

This remastered edition replaces Eureka’s 2007 edition noted below in their The Masters of Cinema Series catalogue.

North American collectors will need a region-free PAL DVD player capable of outputting an NTSC-compatible signal to view this edition.

 
United Kingdom: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 2 PAL DVD edition from Amazon.co.uk. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
2007 Masters of Cinema DVD edition

Tabu (1931), black & white, 83 minutes, BBFC Classification PG.

Eureka Entertainment, EKA 40229 (MoC 66), unknown UPC number.
Full-frame 4:3 PAL, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc, Region 2, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, English language subtitles, chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, £22.99.
DVD release date: 19 November 2007.
Country of origin: England
This PAL edition of F.W. Murnau’s final film has been mastered from the new F.W. Murnau Stiftung and Luciano Berriatúa 75th anniversary restoration of the longer Murnau-approved version of the film, before it was cut by Paramount, with uncensored scenes and intertitles for the first time.

Supplemental material includes full-length commentary by R. Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens, a 15-minute German documentary about Tabu by Luciano Berriatúa, and an 80-page booklet with articles by Scott Eyman, Richard Griffiths, and David Flaherty, an interview with the film’s cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the original story treatments written by Murnau and Flaherty for Tabu and its aborted predecessor Turia.

North American collectors will need a region-free PAL DVD player capable of outputting an NTSC-compatible signal to view this edition.

 
United Kingdom: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 2 PAL DVD edition from Amazon.co.uk. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
2002 Milestone Collection DVD edition

Tabu (1931), black & white, 81 minutes, not rated.

Milestone Film & Video, distributed by Image Entertainment, ID5931MLSDVD, UPC 0-14381-59312-9.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc, Region 1, 5 Mbps average video bit rate, 192 kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $29.99.
DVD release date: 3 September 2002.
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 7 / audio: 6 / additional content: 7 / overall: 7.

This edition is the best representation of Murnau’s original film since, according to the disc’s commentary, the video transfer originates from a 35mm print struck from UCLA Film and Television Archive’s 1983 35mm preservation negative copied from an original 35mm nitrate positive previously held by Paramount, the film’s distributor. Prior to restoration, abbreviated prints of poor visual quality circulated and did little to support the film’s reputation. The restoration results are, for the most part, very-good but never approaches excellent image detail or tonal range. Much of the footage is slightly contrasty and a little soft in detail. Some shots jump about in the frame, others are rock steady. But, despite these minor flaws, the beauty of many of Murnau and Flaherty’s carefully-constructed shots and Crosby’s cinematography remains, and the disc does the best possible job of presenting the film on home video. The film does a reasonable job of rendering a filmlike image on HD equipment.

The original synchronized soundtrack was also restored by UCLA and presents Hugo Riesenfeld’s 1931 monaural music score in the best possible quality.

The disc’s supplemental material includes informative audio commentary by Janet Bergstrom, the original theatrical trailer from a 35mm print, 35mm outtake footage that ranges from grainy to very-good (24 minutes) and a short 1931 35mm film on actress Reri (4 minutes) with commentary by Bergstrom that adds additional information to that of the main film, a stills gallery (50 images) with script pages (24 images) and telegrams (4 images), and for those with DVD drives in their computers there are clearer PDF reproductions of the same script pages and telegrams.

We are pleased with this edition of Tabu and highly recommend it for the film’s beauty and historical cinematic significance.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 1 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 1 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
Other F.W. MURNAU films available on home video.
F.W. Murnau filmography in The Progressive Silent Film List
 
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