F. W. Murnau’s Tabu
  • Assenka Oksiloff


In this final chapter, I would like to turn to a project that marks the end of the silent film era and represents an attempt to capture the primitive on film: F. W. Murnau’s final film, Tabu.1 The question of genre will play a central role in the analysis-more specifically, the boundaries between documentary and fiction film. In a good number of the films that I have highlighted in this study, even those that are highly specialized and intended for researchers and anthropologists, elements of documentary and narrative film are intricately intermeshed. At first glance, Tabu seems to be a more straightforward case, for it would be farfetched to claim that it is a documentary. This “Story of the South Seas,” as the subtitle indicates, focuses more upon a melodramatic tale than upon the real island culture that serves as its setting. Upon the films release in 1931, however, questions about Tabu’s status as either documentary or feature fiction were raised. Reviewers and advertisers provided contradictory answers. The focus in marketing the film was placed upon a rather formulaic love story of two native islanders, Reri and Matahi. The location is Bora-Bora, an island approximately 100 miles from the capital of Tahiti, Tapeete. “Universal” themes of desire and loss override any claims to cultural specificity regarding the indigenous life on the island. A number of reviews that were written after the German premiere of the film take issue with precisely this aspect of Tabu. The film, in many critics’ eyes, is a trivializing Western fantasy of a non-European world. Nevertheless, marketing of the film focused upon a supposedly unique documentary appeal: One advertisement block touts Tabu as “a film of real things” while another claims that “nearly every scene shouts its authenticity.”2


Documentary Film Crowd Scene Paradise Lost Visual Term Visual Rhythm 


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  1. 3.
    Siegfried Kracauer, “Zweimal Wildnis,” in Von Caligari zu Hitle. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1984), 503.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Referring to the growing ranks of office workers, Kracauer observes: “Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of employees populate the streets of Berlin on a daily basis, their life is less familiar than the primitive tribes whose customs these same workers observe with awe in films.” Die Angestellte. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1971), 11.Google Scholar
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    Richard Barsam, quoted in Brian Winston, “Before Grierson, Before Flaherty … Was Edward S. Curtis: The Documentary Film in 1914,” Sight and Sound 57. no. 4 (Fall 1988): 277.Google Scholar
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    The claim was made that Flaherty went to Samoa “in order to show on film the authentic offspring of pure Polynesians of ancient times, their habits and customs, and how they ruled before the arrival of missionaries and white traders.” Robert Flaherty, Wunder der Südse. (Berlin: Reimar Hobbing, 1932), 31. The goal of preserving relatively untouched cultures on film was also taken up by Margaret Mead. After her return from Samoa, Mead argued for the preservation of “vanishing customs and human beings of this earth.”Google Scholar
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    See Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentar. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 43.Google Scholar
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    See, for instance, Frances Flaherty’s remarks about her husband’s work, reprinted in Mohammed Ali Issari, What is Cinema Verité. (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979), 35.Google Scholar
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    Paul Rotha coined the term “slight narrative” in referring to Flaherty’s loose narrative structure in conjunction with location shooting and the filming of everyday life. See Paul Rotha, Documentary Fil. (London: Faber, 1952), 106.Google Scholar
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    Letter to Kurt Korff, quoted in Lotte Eisner, Murna. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 207.Google Scholar
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    David Flaherty, “A Few Reminiscences,” Film Cultur. 20 (1959): 16.Google Scholar
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    See Richard Griffith, “Flaherty and Tabu?” Film Cultur. 20 (1959): 13.Google Scholar
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    Jean Epstein, “Le Sens I bis,” in French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907–1939. ed. Richard Abel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 241.Google Scholar
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    See Eric Rohmer, F W Murnau. Reihe Film 43 (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1990), 80.Google Scholar
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    See “Die Zäsur in der Sprache evoziert das Bild,” Filmbulleti. 3 (1994): 45.Google Scholar
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    For a brief but extremely insightful analysis of this tension, see Louis Audibert, “L’ombre du son,” Cinematograph. 48 (June 1979): 5–9. He is not concerned with linking the ethnographic aspect of the film to the visual.Google Scholar
  16. male figure. Her reading focuses upon the protagonists of Faust, Sunrise. and Nosferatu. See Bergstrom, “Sexuality at a Loss: The Films of F. W. Murnau,” Poetics Toda. 6, no. 1–2 (1985): 185–203. Unlike the threat posed by the ambiguous sexuality of Nosferatu, in particular, the sexualized male bodies of the natives in Tab. are not threatening. On the contrary, they seem to represent a mythic pure eroticism that is free of ideological or power relations. This serves the nostalgic, mythologizing tendencies in Murnau’s last film.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 29.
    For an analysis of the relationship between the early body culture films and fascist film aesthetics, see Hilmar Hoffmann, Mythos Olympi. (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1993).Google Scholar
  18. 31.
    Arthur Kahane, Die Insel der Seelige. (Berlin: PAGU, 1913), 3.Google Scholar

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© Assenka Oksiloff 2001

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  • Assenka Oksiloff

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