The first space is just a stage, a place we expect dance to happen, but that stage soon feels like a world, one made of some coffee-like soil, one whose inhabitants were long ago condemned to wear only beige, where a fearsome collective anxiety accumulates with the appearance of a red slip. The inhabitants’ gestures read as self-flagellation, their bodies move in a manner that’s captivatingly neurotic, addled, electrified, as though possessed by some great and mysterious force. This is a world that German choreographer Pina Bausch built.
I’ve never seen Bausch’s work performed live, so her death in 2009 came with the extra sting of knowing that I’d truly missed something. But Bausch lives on, not only through ongoing revivals but also through this remarkable film from her compatriot Wim Wenders, whose undisguised reverence infuses this, his best work in more than a dozen years. That he made it in 3D, a format traditionally reserved for the biggest and often dumbest sort of genre pictures, is itself remarkable. Photographed by Hélène Louvart, Pina is both the most straightforwardly conceived and best employment of 3D I’ve seen—if you’re going to film something normally experienced in three dimensions, why not shoot it so that it looks three-dimensional? The bottom line is that, however variable his later films may be, Wenders has always possessed an unfailing eye for texture, shadow, colour, and sweeping cinematic splendour, and he’s one of very few filmmakers who has thus far managed to incorporate 3D without sacrificing beauty.
Beauty—a mischievous, obsessive, intelligent, enigmatic beauty—could be said to be one of the subjects of Pina, which is neither biographical documentary nor a performance film in the strictest sense. It’s an homage, by Wenders, his collaborators, and also Bausch’s collaborators, who appear in the film not as talking heads but in silent portraits over which their spoken memories of Bausch float. “Meeting Pina was like finding a language,” says one of her wildly diverse dancers, and Wenders ensures that we understand what’s meant by language in this context: Bausch developed an essentially immutable, bodily vocabulary that swayed playfully between the primal and the sophisticated. Pina shows us dancers dancing with veal chops in ballet slippers outside a factory, having strange encounters on elevated trams, or marching with expressionistic smiles across fields in formal wear. Perhaps best of all, Wenders includes a generous except from Bausch’s famous Café Müller—a work some filmgoers will recognize from Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, which used the dance both as its opening scene and perhaps its source material—in which women scurry blind through a room crowded with tables and chairs while men yank the furniture out of their trajectories. It is, among other things, a testament to the balance of trance-like surrender and devotional support that combine to make art this dynamic, alluring and haunting.