As a dance illiterate, I was pleasantly surprised to find that an appreciation of the human body in ritualized motion isn’t mandatory to enjoy Pina, Wim Wenders‘ first film to be received with less than widespread withering scorn in over a decade. Begun in 2009 as a collaboration with dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch, the film was pointed into an inevitably elegiac direction when she died five days after being diagnosed with cancer. Her absence is noted towards the end by an image from one of her pieces —a dancer shoveling dirt on top of another crawling over the floor, who tries to escape being buried alive —and, less eloquently, in words from one of her troupe about how she has yet to dream of Pina.
Words, Bausch suggests in a rare interview snippet, are no more or less approximate in conveying meaning than dancing; on the basis of the interviews with her dancers, you’d have to concede the point. “Pina was a mixture of fragility and strength,”once suggests, which would describe 99% of the people on the planet. These interviews —with audio playing over footage of the subjects silently staring at the camera, a calcified signifier of The Authentic Gaze that really needs to die already —contribute almost nothing.
Fortunately, Pina doesn’t need talking: it’s got 3D lit brightly enough to avoid the usual watching-movies-through-sunglasses effect. Wenders is feeling his way through the technology’s spatial offerings at a learner’s pace: pieces featuring a manageable number of dancers (often duets and rarely more dancers than the eye can individually keep tabs on) and no other distractions turns out to be the perfect way to examine 3D’s capabilities in a number of settings without getting too showy about it.
Bausch’s signature work, 1978’s “Cafe Müller,” had Bausch herself running through a stage littered with chairs with her eyes closed, as a male dancer barely anticipates her movements in time to clear the way; Pedro Almodovar used it as the literal curtain-raiser for 2002’s Talk To Her, prefiguring a story about men who abuse women under the justification of actually protecting them. Almodovar shoots the performance in close-up, keeping his camera firmly trained on the dancers, restricting a view of the larger set.
This isn’t a bad decision, but it throws Wenders’ visual ideas into sharp relief. Wenders films “Müller” from far back and looking down from above, making the dancers one small part of a stage as viewed from a raked seat: the gleaming whiteness of the stage and the shininess of the glass partitions at the back make as much of an impression as the movement. This may not please dance fans, but it’s great for 3D. Other stage manipulations: during “The Rites of Spring,” the women ceremonially offering up red rags to a group of men (symbolism!) are separated into a group at the back half of the stage. Wenders shoots from in front of the men, crotch-down, their legs dominating the frame, with the women running from the background forward.
Pina is outside as often as its on stage indoors, which makes sense: if one of Bausch’s pieces calls for a hippo to rise up from the river, why not adjourn to an actual stream? Dancers take to the streets to perform a pas de deux in a strip of median greenery, with a very cool suspension railway passing over their heads and traffic zooming behind them in multiple directions.
Inside the cars themselves, the windows are unnervingly shiny and the view of passing third floors on either side unusual. There are also a few failed experiments: one indoor pool dance isn’t bright enough, looking as dim as your usual 3D hackjob, and a close-up of a dancer’s rapidly moving hands mostly turns into strobing garbage.
Chopping up a number of pieces allows for a sampling of Bausch’s preoccupations to speak for themselves: the female body, obsessively manipulated by men, is a major recurring image. Towards the end, dancers splash in an on-stage river, creating a hypnotic droplet spray (Step Up 3D actually got there first, but let that pass) climaxing her love of elemental obstacles.
Wordlessly offering a Bausch sampling, Wenders offers both a respectful overview of her work and a series of buoyant samplings of how to turn the outside world into a proscenium with unexpected pockets of depth. Dance lovers may quibble, but as an exuberant technical exercise Pina never runs out of inspiration.
Vadim Rizov is a freelance film writer based in Brooklyn. His work regularly appears in Sight & Sound, the LA Weekly and the AV Club, among others.