March 30, 1931 [Tabu: A Story of the South Seas]

There is a moment in Tabu that recedes from Robert Flaherty’s landscape, dimming the shining skins of the islanders, dulling the endless sky. The Girl sees the Old Warrior: He appears without warning, still as waiting Death. It is Murnau, of course, sketching Nosferatu one last time. The Girl must follow the apparition to save the Boy--who also follows, swimming to his own death.

Murnau as well did not make it to shore, gone before his movie with Flaherty could play to audiences. But from now on, every time I see the frame tilt, the camera peering hesitantly into the middle distance of sad and ecstatic faces; every time a shadow falls across those faces, cutting off not only light but air; every time my perception of the things on the screen shifts, the lens drawing toward or away, leading all of us--I will think of Murnau, whose eye watched the surface--so closely, so intimately--and sub-surface, the inner life even objects can have, if filmed just so.


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