Only begrudgingly, and at the behest of his then girlfriend, did renowned filmmaker Wim Wenders take in a Pina Bausch retrospective while vacationing in Venice, Italy, in 1985. “I was completely shattered from the experience,” recalls the director, who soon after approached the famed German choreographer about making a documentary. “She had the most piercing eyes I’d ever seen,” he recalls. “And when she looked at you, you thought she was looking right through to your soul—but it wasn’t scary.” Their project, however, took two decades to get off the ground after Wenders discovered that conventional filmmaking couldn’t capture Bausch’s orgiastic body language and unorthodox use of natural elements like water, rocks, and dirt. But after seeing the 2007 concert film U2 3D at Cannes, Wenders decided that 3-D was the way to go and spent the next two years developing special cranes and single-lens setups that could move with Bausch’s dancers during the Wuppertal Dance Theater’s 2009–2010 season. When Bausch died unexpectedly (five days after being diagnosed with cancer in 2009), her dancers persuaded Wenders to press on. The resulting tribute, Pina—which includes excerpts from four signature works: Le Sacre Du Printemps (1975); Cafe Muller (1978); Kontakthof (1978); and Vollmond (2006)—explodes off the screen with the same fragile strength that her live performances once conjured. Says Wenders: “The impetus to make the film was to share it with as many people as possible—not necessarily aficionados, but people like me before I saw my first piece: people who think dance is not for them.”—Michael Slenske
W spoke with the director to discuss the allure of working in 3-D and the story behind Pina, in theaters December 23:
Café Muller was your first experience with Pina Bausch. You cared very little about dance, but this put you on the edge of your seat, moved and crying.
If you have no idea what you’re going to see, you think, “Well this is going to be modern dance, so this isn’t necessarily going to concern me.” And then you look at the stage and watch these six characters doing amazing things; it’s not what I envisioned dance to be and my prejudice was in no way confirmed. I felt, from the beginning, very attracted to these dancers. This unknown choreographer by the name of Pina Bausch was telling me things about men and women with the stage.
What do you think she was trying to say about men and women?
She was telling an incredible metaphor about the search for love and the fear of loss, dependency and how to hold on to somebody and how to let go. I had never seen something so deep about the relationship between men and women before, even in a movie theater. Actually, the entire history of cinema had not made me feel that I had seen something so complete about relationships like this 40-minute play. There was not even a single word spoken, yet it said everything there was to be said about men and women - their human condition as couples and their sometimes desperation attraction and desperate rejection of each other.
The trailer for Pina
Do you think all these emotions were conveyed more clearly because of the lack of dialogue?
Yes. It slowly dawned on me that I was watching something very big, where somebody was making me understand the language of bodies. This is a common language that we all know, except we aren’t so much aware that we speak the language.
What do you think is this “language of bodies?”
It means, if we couldn’t speak or if we didn’t have the same language, we could still communicate with gestures, with movement, with dance. With our arms and hands, we could still tell each other who were are and what we want. The revolution for me, with Pina’s dance, was how precise this language was. I sat there in the audience, and I felt I could just as well be one of the dancers on stage. At the end of it, it was almost like I had cramps—I was so engaged.
Pina was famous for saying that she was not interested in how people move, but rather what makes them move. Do you agree?
That was her credo and she said it very early on in her career, to make people understand that her approach was radically difference. She really put dance upside down—or back on its feet. Pina, who was never so much a fan of words, finally found a way to tell people, “Look, I’m doing something very different. I’m trying to find out how dance defines us and what dance tells us about ourselves, what drives us and what are the forces in us that make us move and express ourselves.” It’s not an aesthetic experience, like that in traditional ballet.
Fabian Prioville and Azusa Seyama in Wim Wenders' Pina
Tell me about the first time you met her. You said you felt like she could read your heart and mind and soul.
I had never been in a situation that I felt totally naked. We were sitting next to each other, around a little coffee table on a piazza in Venice, Italy. There she was. She drank her coffee, smoked one cigarette after another, and didn’t say much. She just had this mysterious way to see through you. I was a little scared, but her look was very gentle. She knew so much about me without actually knowing me, just by looking. She was just so mysterious, and it had this affect where I just kept blabbering on. I felt obliged to.
How did things change with the passing of Pina? I know you were unclear about pressing on with the film.
In fact, I was very clear that I was not going to go on. The film was supposed to be with Pina. We dreamt it up together for over 20 years; without her, there would be no more movie, period. But in September 2009, more than 2 months after Pina passed away, all her friends and dancers came to this official eulogy in her honor. I realized that these dancers were beautiful people and that I loved them very much. They all felt they needed to do something to deal with the loss and that terrible feeling that none of them had been able to say goodbye, or thank you, to Pina. We had to find a way to make an homage to Pina.
Let’s talk a little about 3-D versus traditional film. You said you felt lucky that you discovered 3-D out of necessity, because dance needs it.
It’s not obvious that 3-D is a language that a film really needs. Quite often, I see a movie in 3-D and I’m a little sick and tired of all these effects. Are they really a necessity for this or not? Very often I think not. I do think 3-D still needs to be explored in storytelling as a medium that is necessary, and I want to see the movie that shows me that the use of 3-D and that additional space is fully explored and realized.
I was really hooked to this procedure; it’s a huge step and a new language that needs to be explored. I’m working on a new long-term project, a documentary film about architecture that by its very nature is predestined to be shot in 3-D.
Photos: Top, Ditta Miranda Jasjfi in “Vollmond” in Wim Wenders’ Pina. All images: ©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release.