There is a lot that could be said about Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. It is one of the last great silent films, made well after the advent of sound, in 1931. It is the product of a weird collaboration between quasi-documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty and German expressionist F. W. Murnau (pronounced "MORE-now"). It is an iconic, fairy tale level story of thwarted love (Bora-Bora youngsters Matahi and Reri, lovers and naifs, who run into conflict with both the edicts of their small culture as uttered by elder Hitu, and the corruptions of white society, a trajectory that ends in a form of exhilarating tragedy), yet has timeless profound resonance. The film won an Oscar for best cinematography, and Murnau died in a controversial car wreck just days before the film's premiere. In fact, it would take a book to say all that can be said about Tabu, and such books are available. Suffice it to say here that Tabu is one of those "great" films that starts out a little boring and difficult to take but which gains weight with repeat viewings, until it takes its place among the world's masterpieces. I direct interested viewers to Robin Wood's analysis of the movie, originally published in Film Comment, in its famous Summer, 1971 issue. The disc could have been enhanced by reprinting this article.
VIDEO: Image Entertainment's DVD of this Milestone Films re-release (originally a Paramount picture) leaves much to be desired. The source print for the full-frame (1.33:1) is bad, with breaks and many vertical scratches and numerous other artifacts (the film was restored as best was possible by UCLA, from DP Floyd Crosby's nitrate print). The image even seems to "shake in the gate" at times. The original black and white photography by Floyd Crosby is fine, but a little dated to these eyes.
SOUND: It's a Dolby Digital mono track, for what is essentially a silent movie with musical accompaniment. That being said, the track is pretty scratchy nonetheless.
MENUS: The animated, musical menu offers 16 chapter scene selection for the 81 minute movie.
EXTRAS: Tabu comes fairly packed for a film that other companies might rush into disc to please the art house crowd. First off is a highly informative, Criterion-level commentary track from prolific UCLA film prof Janet Bergstrom, who gives a very good account of the film, both as an atmospheric film "text" and as a film history artifact. Outtake footage comes from a German archive. It's about 25 minutes of alternative takes, with narration from Bergstrom explaining where and when the shots were taken. The chat over this section of the disc amounts to a whole other "commentary" about the film, chronically the movie's production history. There is also a three minute "short film" called Reri in New York, but that is just for the purposes of this disc. The provenance of the footage, possibly test footage, is unknown, but Bergstrom tells us that Reri's real name was Anna Chevalier, and goes on to summarize the rest of Reri's life for the viewer. There is also an animated gallery of production stills, with DVD and reissue credits. The slide show lasts about five minutes. For those with DVD-ROM capabilities, there are also script excerpts and telegrams in PDF format. The rather lengthy trailer is full-frame, but "indented" onto the screen in the correct aspect ratio (you see a black border around the frame). The trailer advertises the film as an exotic, erotic south seas tale, but we know it is really art.