Re-Watch: Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) + Muthspiel / Rom / Eggner

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas
Director: F.W. Murnau
Writer: F.W. Murnau, Robert J. Flaherty, Edgar G. Ulmer
Cast: Matahi, Anne Chevalier, Bill Bambridge, Hitu, Ah Fong, Jules, Mehao
Part of: Film and Music Cycle in the Konzerthaus
With music by Wolfgang Muthspiel, played by him, Mario Rom and Florian Eggner
Seen on: 22.5.2021
[Here’s my first review of the film, without live music.]

Content Note: white gaze / racism

Plot:
On Bora Bora, a young boy, Matahi (Matahi), and a young girl, Reri (Anne Chevalier), fall in love. But when Reri is declared the Chosen Maid, the sacred virgin of the island by their leader, an old warrior (Hito), not even the thought of love is allowed anymore. But Marahi and Reri are not willing to accept that and decide to flee.

Since this year, the Film and Music Cycle was a little difficult – of the four performances, two were canceled and I couldn’t see one – I knew that I wanted to see this final film, even though they had to change the original program and swapped in Tabu – a film that I had seen before and hadn’t particularly liked. And while it was great to be out in a theater/concert hall again, a second viewing didn’t change my mind either, especially not with that musical accompaniment.

The film poster showing a drawing of Matahi (Matahi) as he spear-fishes.

Tabu is a white gazey, exoticizing mess, and that doesn’t change: the child-like, innocent islanders who get pretty much ruined by Western capitalism, while at the same time having “barbaric” rituals? Check, check, and check. But I will say that going in prepared for that left me better able to get into the story, and I did feel with Reri and Matahi – a lot more than I did the first time.

To the film’s credit, they found a fun way to work around the fact that the Hula is sacred and shouldn’t be used frivolously. And there are some beautiful filmmaking touches – like a really fantastic dream sequence with shot transitions that are simply to die for. But I stil feel that the film shouldn’t be shown without some kind of critical framework that contextualizes it and its racism. Unfortunately that’s not what we got.

Matahi (Matahi) getting cheered up by a little boy.

Instead the film was accompanied by three white guys (what a missed chance to find Polynesian musicians to put their spin on the film – for that I’d watch the film a third time, too) who appear to have been surprised by the fact that they were able to actually play live and had therefore only half of the music ready for the film. There were long stretches of silence with no apparent system and the music they did play – starting with the opening muzak-like number that made me wonder in what elevator I found myself in – didn’t seem to fit the film very well. I found it unremarkable and irritating by turns.

But, I will give them that, it did mean that I enjoyed the film more – just by sheer contrast to the lackluster soundtrack.

Matahi (Matahi) and the other young men of the island spear-fishing.

Summarizing: unless the film is part of an entire package of critical framework and Polynesian interpretations, I’m out.

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