By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 22, 2011 at 1:14PM
A hand caresses dirt, sheer curtains billow in your face in 3-D. From the first frames of "Pina," you know you are in the hands of a master. With this documentary Wim Wenders deploys his arsenal of skills learned over 40 years of filmmaking, freed from the constraints of the narrative fiction film. He knows how to use spatial relationships, understands what the dramatic impact of the camera placement will be during Pina Bausch's visceral "Sacre du Printemps," which sends chills up your spine--as do shots of dancers falling hard into each other's arms, inches from the ground. (See the trailer below.)
From his black-and-white 70s German films "Alice in the Cities" and "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick" through the 80s classics "Wings of Desire" and "Paris Texas" and the sprawling "Until the End of the World" in 1991, Wenders has kept his distance from Hollywood.
1982's "Hammet" marked the filmmaker's one foray into big-budget filmmaking with Francis Coppola, but he swiftly returned to the indie side, never compromising, but always somehow on the wrong end of each movie's final cut. He still can't get the five-hour director's cut of his prescient, now contemporary English-language "Until the End of the World," complete with handheld smart phones--one of my favorites, with a superb soundtrack--released in this country (it's available overseas). That would require Warner Bros. to cough up some dough. They'll do it if he gives them back the rights. This he will not do. "It's the most ambitious thing I have ever done," he says.
Wenders has had better luck with such documentaries as "Lightning Over Water" (Nicholas Ray) and "Buena Vista Social Club" (collaborating with Ry Cooder on the Cuban music scene). But still, it's been a while since the German master has made a movie that connected with international audiences, the kind that inspires standing ovations at film festivals. With his long-discussed documentary portrait of dancer Pina Bausch, Wenders was stalled for two decades unitl he saw the U2 3-D concert movie--and saw the light. 3-D was the answer. "Before, a dancer was like a fish in an aquarium, I was not in the water, I wanted to be with them," he says. "Space is so essential for dance, it's their kingdom. With every step dancers invent space."
Pre-production was well under way for "Pina" with Bausch's dancers (many of them inspiringly middle-aged) rehearsing for the shooting, when Bausch unexpectedly died. Wenders at first abandoned the documentary altogether, grief-stricken at the loss of his close friend. But her dance company convinced him to go ahead, and he rethought his approach. Yes, he could still shoot the four dances they had prepared. But he was not going to go on a long road trip with the troupe, revealing Bausch's behind-the-scenes process. That was no longer possible.
So he asked her dancers to answer questions about Bausch via dances that she had looked at. He took them outdoors to a rock quarry and under a monorail in Wuppertal, where the Tanztheater is based, and found exhilarating new ways to shoot dance and honor his friend. "I was not able to say good-bye, it was our way of saying good-bye," Wenders told an AFI Fest crowd. The credits read: "A film for Pina Bausch, by Wim Wenders." Wenders says he and the Pausch dancers embarked on a healing process. The movie's emotions are pure, they are earned.
He and 3-D cinematographer Alain Derobe mounted a 3-D camera on a crane to follow the dancers. And he interviewed them: one admits that Bausch told her, "you just have to get crazier." Another explains: "we became the paint to color her images." Bausch was a stickler about the tiniest details, from precise repetitions to whether a "blind" dancer with closed eyes was looking up or down under her eyelids.
"Pina" is my favorite film of the year--and is the official German submission for the Oscar as well as being short-listed for the documentary Oscar. Check out our video conversation below.
The question is what this experience will do for Wenders, who admits that shooting with these pure disciplined artists may have ruined him with regular movie actors. He wants to work with the dancers again.
The film's motif of a single file of dancers each repeating a brief dance mantra from "The Four Seasons" winds up with them walking along a giant slag heap, silhouetted by the dying sun. The final image came to Wenders in the moment, knowing that he was quoting Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal." It felt right.