Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

Originally conceived as a collaborative co-production between directors Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau, Tabu bears the fingerprints of both, marked with Flaherty’s ethnographic exoticism and Murnau’s focus on social injustice. This occurred despite the fact that Flaherty was ostensibly booted from the Bora Bora set after battling with Murnau, relegated to the processing lab while the famously icy German director directed most of the film himself. Tabu suffered more than its fair share of these kinds of difficulties, yet still managed to come out as a singular, successful film despite some obvious shortcomings.

Still vital 81 years later, the film takes on new significance with the release of Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ identically titled movie, which retains the two-part structure and the concept of a foreign land in transition. While Gomes’ Tabu goes from a dreary modern day Lisbon to the black-and-white idyll of a colonial African past, told entirely through voiceover, Murnau’s transitions from an island paradise to a decidedly less idyllic French island colony, telling its story entirely through body language and music, with a few handwritten letters to fill in the gaps. Beginning on an isolated Polynesian isle, it tells the story of two lovers whose happiness is threatened by both ancient tradition and modern commerce.

Insistently focused on bodies in motion, the early passages borrow heavily from Flaherty’s style; appropriate as they were reportedly the only scenes he ended up shooting. Befitting his usual focus on the beauty of labor, Flaherty turns the island natives’ relaxed lives into a flurry of activity, all sliding down waterfalls and racing through ocean waves. This jitteriness carries across the entire movie, which maintains the focus on thrashing limbs and constant movement, conveyed through the kinetics of a native dance or the staccato editing of a shark attack.

Yet, while Flaherty may have set the tone in some sense, the narrative composition is pure Murnau, even borrowing from the structure of Sunrise, with the naïve couple wrecked on the shoals of a world they can’t begin to understand. Fleeing their island home after she gets chosen to be installed as a sacred virgin in a shrine to the gods, Matahi (playing himself) and Reri (Anne Chevalier) flee to an iteration of the modern world, a French colonial outpost on a nearby island. Unfamiliar with the customs of this complicated society, they rack up a huge debt throwing a celebratory feast, which means that they can’t get away when emissaries of their world come after them.

Spinning visual poetry from this sad struggle, Tabu rises above its fixation on the exotic. The spectacle of a cast made up entirely of natives may have been a bit of surface dressing, and the unorthodox choice of doing the same for the crew was likely a hasty cost-saving measure, but these odd details contribute to the film’s unique feel, pressed further by the lack of dialogue in this late-era silent. Coming at the end of this era, and standing as Murnau’s final film, it’s an effective parable of traditional ways coming in collision with modern values, with a fondness for the beauty of both sides, even as it points out their evils.

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