By the end of the 1920s the success of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) had made F. W. Murnau a significantly wealthy and commanding figure in Hollywood. But diminishing returns from his follow-up Four Devils (1928) and his refusal to do talkie reshoots for Our Daily Bread (eventually released as City Girl in 1930) put his contract with Fox Films at risk of lapsing1. While under this pressure, Murnau, a huge admirer of Robert J. Flaherty2, had overheard that the documentarian’s current production in New Mexico was in danger of shutting down, and so, either seeing Flaherty as a useful asset given his experience working with First Nations peoples (an Inuk family in Nanook of the North (1922) and Samoan villagers in Moana (1925)) or feeling himself and Flaherty kindred spirits3, made arrangements for them both to travel to Polynesia and co-produce, write and direct a film.

After a non-start due to funding from a shady firm called “Colorart” falling through4, Murnau independently financed the production and shooting could begin. Despite collaborating on the film’s treatment, Murnau and Flaherty clashed constantly. Ultimately, Murnau’s greater technical skill allowed him to take the reins of directing early into production, leaving Flaherty relegated to film lab duty. On all release prints and film posters of the resulting film, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, Murnau is given full directing credit, alongside the credit “Told by F. W. Murnau, R. J. Flaherty”, presumably in reference to the film’s treatment and script. The unusualness of the “Told by” credit has led to some confusion over the film’s authorship, with Andrew Sarris listing the film in the directorial filmography of both Murnau and Flaherty in The American Cinema5.

Of all critics, it is odd that Sarris would make this mistake, since thematically and in terms of mise-en-scène, the final film is completely Murnau’s. Tabu continues the development begun with the frivolous naturalistic sequences in Faust (1926), to the dichotomies of country-city and innocence-corruption in Sunrise, to the pastoralism of City Girl6. By Tabu, Murnau’s cinema is completely devoid of the artificial sets and lighting of his German expressionist films. According to the film’s cinematographer Floyd Crosby, the crew amounted to assistant directors David Flaherty (brother of Robert) and Bill Bambridge, plus locals from the islands. Their gear was one camera plus two or three old reflectors. Tracking shots were achieved using canoes7.

Despite the small crew and difficult shooting circumstances, Murnau’s own annotated script8 reveals his meticulous planning, down to the direction of movement of boats and people for thematic purpose, and the exact placement of shadows in frame. Accustomed to greater ability for camera movement, Murnau circumvents his limitations by moving his characters around the camera instead, such as the exhilarating close-up of Matahi (playing himself) and Reri (Anne Chevalier) spinning around together in dance. This dance ceremony is meant to prepare Reri for sacrifice, yet Matahi defiantly joins in. Additionally, Murnau masterfully constructs meaning through composition, such as the scene at a trading post on a French colonised island where Matahi is told by Chinese traders that he cannot leave the island due to the unpaid bar receipts he naively signed. Matahi is framed in the centre, with the store owner in the foreground to his right, the barman to his left, the small jail-like bars of the counter in-front of him and a sign in French directly behind him (that it is implied he is unable to read). Matahi looks completely out of place with his bare chest and crown of leaves, and sealed in his fate at all angles.

Similar to the “Man” and “Wife” character names in Sunrise, in Tabu Murnau continues his aim to strip his worlds to their essentials, and uses the perceived primitiveness of the Polynesian setting in tandem with the purity of storytelling and cinematic language of the silent film form. David Flaherty hints at this when he notes that the decision to make Tabu a silent film in 1931 was “dictated not by economic but by aesthetic considerations. If [it] enjoys a certain universality and timelessness, credit this bold decision.”9 Not even the Movietone effects of Sunrise are present here, the arguable exception being a song sung by the islanders during Reri’s ceremony.

As in Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), no inter-titles are given for spoken dialogue, and, in fact, Tabu furthers Murnau’s distrust of words. Certain elements of its story are communicated through scrolls, letters, and reports handwritten by a ship captain and a policeman, yet these always have a negative connotation. Here the written word is the tool of the order of the native South Pacific society, as well as the tool of the oppressors on the French colonised island, ordinating Reri and Matahi’s destruction respectively. The director’s dichotomy is clear: images are pure, words corrupt.

Contemporary critics have been quick to point to Murnau’s position as a homosexual director and the film’s gaze, including historians R. Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens who glibly note Murnau’s “appreciation” for the male form10. Indeed Murnau’s depiction of glistening, slim and toned male bodies, particularly during the opening spearfishing sequence, bears a striking resemblance to the heterosexual female gaze Leni Reifenstahl trains on her ancient Greek Olympians throwing discuses and spears in Olympia (1936). While it would be tempting to celebrate Tabu as an early example of homosexual male gaze in cinema, postcolonial studies professor Jeffery Grieger argues that the film’s homoerotics can be better seen as part of its broader imperialist dynamics, noting that “The Pacific serves as a subcultural space where western writers, artists, and filmmakers could imagine, articulate, and enact desires suppressed at home.”11

Much else about Tabu projects western culture onto South Pacific peoples and locations. The film’s two chapter headings of “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost” reference John Milton’s epic poem on the Garden of Eden and Fall of Man myths. Similarly, the “Musical Setting” by Hugo Riesenfeld contains several interpolations of European Romantic-era classical music. These include Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturnes, and strikingly, Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s symphonic poem ‘Vltava’ (English: The Moldau). Originally written as a tribute to the long flowing river in Bohemia, the piece is here used to score the South Pacific villagers rowing canoes in the open seas towards the ship bringing news of Reri’s fate.

It is also worth acknowledging the way Murnau lived while filming, sectioned off in a one-bedroom house, with a phonograph that he kept to himself. In letters Murnau wrote to his mother at home, he describes his desire to be alone from the rest of the world12, and in production photos he is always seen with a brimmed hat, dressed in white, and positioned centre of frame with South Pacific locals surrounding him. The image conjured is a kind of colonial fantasy, similar to that depicted and skewered in Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982) or Pacifiction (Albert Serra, 2022).

Despite this, Tabu is an earnest attempt at showing the damage done to First Nations people by colonialism, even if lacking in direct self-critique. Rather the film emanates a kind of white guilt around its depiction of a vanishing way of life, something that Fatimah Tobing Romy likens to the way we might think of “endangered species”.13

Murnau had planned to work more in the Pacific, initially setting out to make a film in Bali alongside Tabu14,and possibly adapting Herman Melville’s novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life15. By other accounts he was planning to return to Tahiti as soon as possible after the premiere16. Consequently, it was not to be, and Murnau would perish in a car accident just days before Tabu opened in New York. His absence from Classical Hollywood’s sound era is cinema’s greatest what-if, particularly considering the work produced by his stylistic contemporaries including Ford, Borzage, Sternberg and Lubitsch. Instead, Tabu became his final film; incredibly multifaceted amongst its troubled production and problematic issues of representation. In its form, historiography and content, it is the last gasp of cinema’s lost paradise.


  1. Scott Eyman, “Sunrise in Bora Bora” in Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, Nick Wrgley ed. (London: Eureka Entertainment, 2013), Blu-Ray booklet, p. 6.
  2. “Your brother makes the best films,”: F. W. Murnau quoted in David Flaherty, “A Few Reminiscences” in Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, Nick Wrigley ed. (London: Eureka Entertainment, 2013), Blu-Ray booklet, p. 27.
  3. Floyd Crosby quoted in Mark Langer, “Flaherty’s Hollywood Period: The Crosby Version” in  Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, Nick Wrigley ed. (London: Eureka Entertainment, 2013), Blu-Ray booklet, p. 32.
  4. Scott Eyman, op cit, p. 7.
  5. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1996).
  6. How the lost Four Devils may or may not fit into this development would be interesting.
  7. Scott Eyman, op cit, p. 9–10.
  8. A unique aspect of Tabu is how much of its production and shooting materials have been preserved and made publicly available courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek. See “The Making of F. W. Murnau’s ‘Tabu’ – The Outtakes Edition”, Deutsche Kinemathek, accessed October 10, 2022, https://www.deutsche-kinemathek.de/en/collections-archives/digital-collection/murnau-tabu.
  9. David Flaherty, op cit, p. 29.
  10. R. Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens, “Commentary”, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, by F. W. Murnau (London: Eureka Entertainment, 2013), Blu-Ray.
  11. Jeffrey Geiger, Facing the Pacific: Polynesia and the U.S. Imperial Imagination (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), p. 210.
  12. Scott Eyman, op cit, p. 10–11.
  13. Fatimah Tobing Romy, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996) p. 154–155.
  14. Floyd Crosby quoted in Mark Langer, “Flaherty’s Hollywood Period: The Crosby Version” in  Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, Nick Wrigley ed. (London: Eureka Entertainment, 2013), Blu-Ray booklet, p. 32.
  15. R. Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens, “Commentary”, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, by F. W. Murnau (London: Eureka Entertainment, 2013), Blu-Ray.
  16. Scott Eyman, op cit, p. 15.

About The Author

Andréas Giannopoulos is a Melbourne-based narrative film director and writer. He recently completed a Master of Arts Screen: Directing at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and is a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque.

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