Wim Wenders’ PINA is the German nomination in the foreign language film category for this season’s Oscars. It is unusual both for its subject (the iconic, theater dance choreographer, Pina Bausch) and because it is an art film shot in 3D, something of a first. The film began production in 2009 shortly after Bausch’s unexpected death. It deals with her choreography and the Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers themselves more than it does with Bausch. We see her obliquely, through her work, her dancers and their reactions to Bausch and what it feels like to grow up inside her choreography. The overwhelming feeling you take away is for the affection and philosophical connection that flows between Bausch and her collaborators. In this sense, PINA is more of a glancing homage for an artist who operated in a world of primal emotions, and obsession for her particular brand of movement. It is anyone’s guess whether this is the film Wenders originally intended to make or whether it is a version transformed in some way by Bausch’s death.
The film is loosely structured around lengthy excerpts of four choreographies: Le Sacre Du Printemps, Kontakthof, Café Müller, and Vollmond. Vollmond (2006) is the only recent work of the four. All of the stage performances were shot during the company’s 2009-2010 season. Interspersed with long sections from those pieces are candid portraits of the company dancers speaking about Bausch and their personal experiences with the company as well as vignettes of the company members dancing in a variety of non-theatrical settings: a labyrinth of empty rooms, a quiet brook, a glass-sheathed house, a hill top, a traffic island in downtown Wuppertal. In the portraits, Wenders films the dancers looking into the camera while they speak in their own voice overs. You come away with the terrific sense of loss created by Bausch’s absence. One asks for Bausch to visit her in her dreams. Another remembers how Bausch chided her to be wilder. The portraits are brief but poignant. They distill much of the same emotional territory that preoccupied Bausch in her work: loss, love, and longing.
The location dance sequences have been chosen with a sense of the extravagant and peculiar. One, with its profile of parading dancers we see early on in the film as part of a stage performance. Another set in the factory yard amidst a complex array of conveyor machinery, and scaffolding shows the dancer stuffing cold lunch meat for padding into her toe shoes and bourréeing across concrete like an industrial strength swan. Another pas de deux is set on a traffic island beneath a suspended city tramway. The choreography is supplied by the dancers themselves, perhaps intending to channel something of Bausch or simply playing with movement in a way that expresses a personal homage. One solo, danced at the precipitous brink of a dusty, open pit stone quarry, was especially revealing for its contrasts and the way in which you feel emotionally startled by the sudden scene change. The dancer flails wildly in the dust and ultimately makes his way up a steep embankment. Just as he arrives, Wenders cuts to an actual stage performance from Vollmond, with the dancers bucketing water over a truck-sized boulder.
Wenders says he waited for 3D technology to catch up to his vision of what his concept for the film required. The theater scenes come across in great detail but they also look strangely over telescoped in depth. The color also is somewhat bleached out with the pall of a grey and a washed out green film that obscures the true colors. I’m not sure that the work has been significantly enhanced in any meaningful way by the 3D effect. The clarity is startling. The scenes from Le Sacre du Printemps are brilliant for the way in which they conveying the fierce commitment to movement exhibited by her dancers and for the hyperrealism of the set, a stage covered with a thick blanket of red earth. You get a terrific sense for Bausch’s detailed environments, the totality of her choreographic designs, and the variety in her distinctly heterogenous company of dancers.
The film is sure to be a hit with the dance crowd. and for those new to dance it may be a better (if more eccentric) place to start than,say, an HD broadcast of Swan Lake from St. Petersburg. Her work has been ground breaking and anyone involved in the contemporary theater dance game is in her debt. We see Bausch dancing in a few scenes of archival footage. Those scenes are astonishing for their power. You don’t doubt that she had the ability to see deeply into people as many of her collaborators,including Wenders, mentioned. She was one of a kind, a true explorer, who stuck with her vision of movement and theater for a lifetime.
(The film opens on Friday, January 13th at the Hollywood Arclight and The Landmark in Westwood and is distributed by Sundance Selects. It is in predominantly in German with English subtitles.The film will also run in standard format.Check for times and theaters.)