Mad filmmaker Werner Herzog may have conjured up a whole new genre when he directed his 3D art-house documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. That film—combining ancient cave art with eye-popping 3D technology—became an award-winning hit. Now, fellow German auteur Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Until the End of the World) has followed suit, creating a 3D documentary about avant garde dance choreographer Pina Bausch.
Wenders—who knows a thing or two about producing lyrical, languid beauty with a camera—uses 3D technology not to capture the reality of dance, but to heighten the theatricality of Pina’s highly experimental compositions. Shooting dance on film isn’t easy. In its regular milieu—on stage—dance is meant to be viewed from a set, all-encompassing distance. Here, Wenders punches in on the dancers, giving us intimate close-ups of faces, hands, feet. If this were a film about traditional ballet, the approach would be disastrous. But Pina’s work is anything but traditional. Occasionally, it’s hard to even identify it as “dance” (two men lying on the floor spitting water on one another, for example). Moving the camera in close highlights the small, startling details inherent in Pina’s choreography.
At first, Wenders captures Pina’s famed routines on an actual stage, proscenium jutting out from the sides and seat-backs spreading in front of us—heavily emphasizing the theatrical setting and giving us plenty of three-dimensional depth. Later, Wenders removes Pina’s dancers from the boards, sending them out into urban parks, public swimming pools, abandoned subway tunnels and other unusual settings to perform their movements.
Pina herself passed away in 2009—just as Wenders was prepping to shoot—and this film is a rare opportunity to see a large (some might say overwhelming) sampling of her work. Judged by the evidence at hand, it’s raw, emotional and extremely earthy. (In the case of the first performance—dancers stomping, rolling and sweating on a stage covered in dirt—the last adjective gets run through all its definitions.) But Pina preaches best to the converted. If you’re a dancer yourself or harbor a deep love for the art form, you’re likely to be moved and inspired by Pina.
If not, you’ll only be confused as to what the woman’s routines are attempting to communicate. (A man sits in the back of an elevated train with giant cardboard ears taped to his head. A woman in a sparkly dress enters. She beats up a pillow and makes monster sound effects. What does this signify? Call me a plebe, but I’m at a complete loss.) I went into the film with exactly zero knowledge or appreciation of modern interpretive dance. Honestly, those numbers haven’t changed much.
As a cinematic catalogue of a visual art form, Pina is invaluable. As a documentary film, however, it’s not particularly elucidative. How exactly does one film a 3D documentary in the first place? Wenders avoids the “talking head” approach to documentary filmmaking by interviewing the members of Pina’s troupe in voice-over. They all gush about how awesome and brilliant the woman was—although it doesn’t appear she said more than one or two words to the lot of them over the course of 20 or 30 years. Pina seemed to speak either in highly generalized Hallmark greeting card slogans (“Dance for love.”) or cryptic Big Brother-ish mottos (“Fragility is strength.”). On the extremely rare occasion that she speaks for herself in some old archival footage, Pina doesn’t discuss technique or style or training or anything even remotely concrete. At least Wenders answers the question of how to insert archival footage into a 3D movie—he places a film projector in the foreground, adds the heads of seated students at midfield and flashes the old images on a screen within a screen. Clever as this might be, the old film footage provides no biographical information on the woman, no contextualizing of her work and no real idea of what made her such a revered figure.
There’s little doubt that Pina Bausch was a remarkable artist. Capturing her innovative work in a 3D setting is a dazzling way to celebrate her legacy. Pina certainly resembles no other dance film ever made. But it’s likely to frustrate, confuse and bore those not already intimately familiar with the subject at hand.