Rather a lot of comment has been made on the surprising adoption of 3-D film technology by art cinema directors like Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, and if it gets their films the attention they otherwise wouldn’t receive, then the publicity is all well and good. It seems that these two particular directors have at least made use of the technology in a more meaningful way, grasping the opportunities it offers documentary filmmaking in a way that the Hollywood mainstream has failed to do so far in the wake of Avatar, but more importantly, it has clearly inspired the filmmakers towards new ways of approaching their subjects. They perhaps haven’t fully considered how those films are to be exhibited in the underfunded, independent arthouse cinemas that are likely to be their main outlet – which even if digitally capable are unlikely to find much use for investment in 3-D projection – but in the case of Wim Wenders’ Pina at least, it seems that the impact is not lessened when exhibited in the conventional flat format.
The method of approaching a documentary feature about the German choreographer Pina Bausch had troubled Wim Wenders for a number of years. The German director had seen a Bausch piece ‘Café Müller’ performed in 1985 and had developed a friendship with the choreographer in the intervening years, but although keen to make a documentary feature about her work, Wenders did not consider himself an expert on dance or capable of finding any new way of filming it that would draw out the meaning it contained for him personally, or indeed in any way that would illuminate the working methods and personality of the originator of the pieces. The ability to shoot in 3-D eventually presented new possibilities, but by the time that Wenders planned to start work on the film, Pina Bausch had died in 2009, and the film instead became something of a tribute to the artistic director of the Tanztheater Wuppertal rather than a conventional documentary biopic.
While the death of Pina Bausch is a tragic loss – whether you were previously aware of her dance work or not, the extent of her brilliance and originality will at least be clearly evident after viewing Pina – in some ways it is fortuitous in terms of the approach that it forces Wim Wenders to adopt in his making of the film. In previous documentary features that the director has made on figures that he greatly admires – Yasujiro Ozu in Tokyo Ga, Nicholas Ray in Lightning Over Water, and fashion designer Yoji Yamamoto in Notebook on Cities and Clothes – Wenders has struggled to divorce himself from his subject, or perhaps not so much struggled as largely failed through his method of looking inside himself and trying to relate them to his own work as a filmmaker, to find the essential ingredient of genius or magic that is expressed by these people in their creations. Without having recourse to interviews with his subject – which is fortuitous since it seems that neither Bausch nor her dancers are any more capable than his previous subjects of putting into words what exactly it is about their creations that makes them work – the director is forced to find other means of conveying the power and impact of her approach to dance, and he finds a means to do so through the dances themselves, and through the devotion the choreographer has so clearly inspired in her dance troupe. The results are astonishing.
Whether viewed in 3-D or not, the inspiration of using space differently and considering the dance movements in relation to their surroundings in a holistic 360-degree manner (even if it is not technically possible to do so), is enough to ensure that the filmmaking approach of Pina adopts itself to the subject much better than were the filmmaker to simply record it or reframe it in a way that reduces it for the screen. The vast majority of the film is indeed little more than stagings of Pina Bausch pieces, performed by her troupe in a variety of locations, but as the brief archive clips of Bausch herself and with brief comments and testimonies from the dancers who have worked with her for decades interspersed throughout the film make clear, words are insufficient – Bausch herself never explained anything and never gave anything but cryptic comments to her dancer when she spoke to them at all – but it is the dance that needs to speak for itself.
Wenders doesn’t let his curiosity get the better of him this time, or perhaps he realises that there is nothing to be gained and no explanations to be found from examining Bausch through his own perspective and his own reaction to her work. All he can do as a filmmaker is try and find a way to allow the dance pieces to speak for themselves outside of the confines of a stage and away from the eyes of a live audience. He finds a variety of means to do so, which includes on a stage and in front of a live audience, but also in some innovative outdoor sequences, forcing the viewer to take into consideration the space around the dancers, the environment, the elements and the other materials around them as well as the dancers themselves, making each and every one of the pieces absolutely riveting to watch.
It’s the mark of a great documentary filmmaker that he can do more than just film his subject in an effective manner, but also illuminate it and make sense of it without, as Wenders would have done in the past, imposing a personal interpretation that distances the viewer from the filmmaker/subject relationship. Yet, seemingly without trying to, by simply reaching into himself and his subject for inspiration, by making use of space and the environment and reacting instinctively towards it, Wenders does in a way also make a commentary on his own films – the wide open landscapes that speak of the inner lives of his characters in Paris, Texas and most evidently the views of Wuppertal that inspire the rediscovery of a childlike innocence in Alice in the Cities – achieving that connection in a less intrusive and imposing manner that he has never done in the past. In this way, like the trajectory of his own soul-searching road movies, Wenders is able to find a narrative thread in the individual pieces and the sequences, that runs through the whole body of the work, paying tribute to the choreographer and her work in the most touching, sincere and respectful manner imaginable in a work of brilliance and great originality.