The Making of F. W. Murnau's TABU: The Outtakes Edition

Trip to the South Seas

On May 12, 1929, one day after the beginning of production noted in the Colorart contract, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau left San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles, with the “Bali.” Included on board was a six-person team and David Flaherty, Robert Flaherty’s brother, who Murnau had met at the Fox Film Corporation and who would become one of his most important film crew staff on the TABU project.
In order to meet Murnau and his brother on Tahiti, Robert Flaherty, together with his assistant Sam Brown, set out on a journey from San Francisco a month later, on June 12th, aboard an ocean liner of the “Canadian Australiasian Royal Mail Line.”
The “Bali” first sailed to San Diego, then further south through the Gulf of California. On May 21st the ship laid anchor for several days outside the Mexican port of Mazatlán. At the sight of many coconut palms, the traveling party already felt closer to the South Seas: “Flaherty, next to me, suddenly says we should sail into the port of Mazatlan on Sunday morning: ‘There are coconut palms – it looks exactly like the islands in the South Seas!’ and really, through a thin line of high palms one sees the Mexican city preceded by small islands, and flat stretches of sand densely overlapped with coconut groves to the sides – one sees the thick, green clusters of nuts through the glass.” [Letter from F. W. Murnau to Salka and Berthold Viertel, undated, Literaturarchiv Marbach]

Murnau sent his mother a postcard with the picture of a palm on May 23rd: “First station in the tropics. I drank my first coconut today! The ‘Southern Cross’ appears on the horizon at night. Tomorrow, we’re heading further south for several weeks.” [Postcard from F. W. Murnau to Ottilie Plumpe, illegible postmark, dated “23.5.1929” by Murnau, F. W. Murnau estate, Deutsche Kinemathek] However, a defective generator coil and a broken anchor cable detained the travelers until the end of May.
At first the continuation of the journey was influenced by bad weather: “[...] with a week of nearly uninterrupted rain – rain like we can hardly imagine it – it’s like a lake that is poured over you; it’s as if we’re packed in water in our boat [...].” Murnau’s mood soon changed into enthusiasm, however: “Shortly before reaching the equator – suddenly overnight – everything changed: We’re in the southeast trade wind – there are no more clouds in the sky (only a soft wreath of the lightest, whitest dabs encircling the horizon); the wind blows us up and down on light waves across the equator; the days are all so beautiful – the nights are more beautiful, the most beautiful – sunsets in so tender, pastel-like colors that you laugh happily about the fulfillment of such dreams, as if a gigantic sea shell encases the sky for us, shimmering in all the colors of mother-of-pearl.” [Letter from F. W. Murnau to Salka and Berthold Viertel, undated, Literaturarchiv Marbach]
After more than three weeks at sea, the “Bali” reached the island Nuku Hiva, one of the Marquesas Islands belonging to French Polynesia. “When the ship pulled into port, I shouted jubilantly to my people: ‘We’re really here! – We made it!’ – In that small boat – more than 4000 miles … I see these gorgeous people for the first time – slim and sinewy in figure – their manner noble and friendly. – I hear my first Polynesian, soft and melodious – the ancient language of the natives on most of the islands in the South Seas.” [Loose-leaf collection, p. 16, F. W. Murnau estate, Deutsche Kinemathek]
On Nuku Hiva, Murnau and David Flaherty visited the Taipivai valley, described in Herman Melville’s novel Typee, where the natives had held the writer prisoner for some weeks in 1842 after he was deserted by a whaler. A copy of this book was in the ship’s library on the “Bali.” “We had a good selection of books about the South Seas with us: Conrad, Stevenson, Pierre Loti, Melville, Frederick O’Brien, Hall and Nordhoff – Works, which were suited to strengthening our longing for the bright islands.” [“Meine Fahrt zu den Glücklichen Inseln” (“Meine Fahrt zu den Inseln der Glücklichen”), undated manuscript, p. 1, Cinémathèque française]

From Nuku Hiva, the trip went further south to the island Ua Pu, afterwards back to Nuku Hiva and finally to the southeast, to the island of Hiva Oa. The travelers went there to see the grave of the French painter Paul Gauguin, who had lived on the island from 1901 until his death in 1903.
After an excursion to the neighboring island Tahuata, the trip went to Fatu Hiva, an island located at the southern end of the Marquesas Islands group. At a celebration there, Murnau’s attention was drawn to the young man Mehao, who he initially engaged as the lead actor for the film. Later, Matahi received this part and Mehao played one of his friends.
The “Bali” crossed the northern region of the Tuamotu Archipelago on the way to Tahiti. The travel group stopped again on the Takapoto Atoll and Takaroa. Murnau saw pearl divers at work for the first time; and it occurred to him that they were dependent on the businessmen who bought their pearls – an impression that Murnau incorporated into TABU.

After more than two months at sea and a route of more than 5,000 nautical miles, the “Bali” reached Tahiti on the evening of July 22, 1929: “While going along the coast, we saw the nightly fires, which are lit to prepare a meal or in order to show directions back and forth for those going out to fish. – We soon saw roving lights, car headlights, and heard horns honking as we approached the port city of Papeete, which shone like a sea of light and was reflected in the lagoon. […] We anchored someplace, practically on the street at the dock, since the cars and bicycles that rode past us seemed so near. We could almost see into the lighted houses. The anchor had hardly been cast, when a voice from the shore called my name. At first I didn’t believe it. It was Sam Brown and I called out a ‘hello’ in reply. – We have been long overdue for several weeks.” [Loose-leaf collection, pp. 40-41, F. W. Murnau estate, Deutsche Kinemathek]

Back to top