On the island of Tahiti life is one of the few unspoilt areas on planet Earth, unconcerned with civilisation and the outside world. All that matters there is the fishing, the free and easy life, and falling in love. Young fisherman Matahi (as himself) has fallen for one of the native girls, Reri (as herself, aka Anne Chevalier), and sticks up for her after a morning of hijinks at the bathing waters see her in an argument with one of her friends. It seems nothing could change their idyll, as surely they are set to spend the rest of their days together...
But storytellers F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty had other ideas for their leads, as they saw the encroaching tide of Western society as a corrosive one, materialistic when it should be celebrating the simple things as the Tahitians would do. Or at least that was their idea, as documentarian Flaherty, whose most famous work was still Nanook of the North, wished to preserve these islanders' existence while Murnau wanted a more narrative approach. When they decided their styles were not matching up, Flaherty took a back seat leaving his erstwhile business partner to complete the film.
Well, almost, as while Murnau was finishing it off he was killed in a car crash, and never got to see the film as he would have intended it, released as it was a week later. That sad fact casts a shadow over a film that concocted a rather contrived tearjerking tale out of its raw materials, a genuine source of tragedy that threw the fictional one into less believable relief. The film was divided into two parts, and the first was not so much about the corruption of capitalism, and more about the intolerances of religion as practiced by the islanders when word reaches Reri that she is to be the sacred virgin for a neighbouring isle.
She's none too happy about that, and we can tell because for the rest of the movie she has a tendency to slump her shoulders and cry into the crook of her elbow at every opportunity. This was one of the last silent movies of that era, mainly because the actual natives Murnau used as his cast could not be understood in English too well, so having them mime the drama and add intertitles was the most obvious way to go. Using them also meant for the first half at least there were a surprising (to modern eyes) amount of bare, bouncing breasts on display, although in many territories these shots were censored.
Still, that sense of an untouched paradise was something very potent for audiences of the day for whom struggling to get by was becoming a way of life. Imagine living in these Pacific islands and not needing anything but the fruit from the trees, the fish from the oceans and the sun on their heads - no wonder a whole subgenre emerged detailing island life and love; Dorothy Lamour had a lot to thank Tabu for. But really Murnau was in sorrowful mood as he saw this way of conducting things threatened by those who would put a price on it. Previously Matahi would think nothing of diving for pearls, but now he finds he needs a livelihood to keep himself and Reri, who he has eloped with in the second half of the film, in some kind of comfort. So no matter how lush this appeared (Floyd Crosby won an Oscar for his camerawork), it was actually a pessimistic story unsatisfied with any existence, no matter how cartoonish it became.