It was in 1985 that the German film director Wim Wenders first saw the Pina Bausch dance company. He later admitted that he had had to be dragged to the event by a girlfriend. Though a lover of many types of music, Wenders was one of those who believed he simply didn’t get ballet or modern dance. But after a few moments of the performance, he was on the edge of his seat, so moved he was crying. He felt his life had been altered.
Pina Bausch had been born in Dusseldorf in 1940 (that made her five years older than Wenders). She danced from an early age and came to America to study with Anthony Tudor and Paul Taylor and to perform with New American Ballet. In 1962, she joined the Folkwang Ballett, in Germany, and stayed there for ten years, becoming the leader of the company. But then in 1972, she moved to Wuppertal (close to the border with Belgium) to be artistic director of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet. It was there that she developed a unique approach to modern dance that was sexual, theatrical, violent sometimes, full of conflict and a kind of unhappiness seldom touched on in classical ballet. The genre was called “tanztheater” and in time the company was renamed Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Her reputation was international, but she never gave up the small city, also famous for its innovative monorail.
Soon after his first exposure to tanztheater, Wenders had talked to Bausch about a movie—but what kind of film? How does one film dance, especially when it is as physical and dramatic as Bausch made it? By 2009, he had the idea of doing it in 3D—an art documentary using the form associated with action films. Bausch agreed, though she was insistent that there would be no biography in the film, and as little as possible of her talking. It worked out that way: a week before shooting was to start Bausch was diagnosed with lung cancer and in a few days she was dead. Wenders cancelled the film; it had become impossible, he believed. But then the dancers came to him and said, no, we must do the film “for Pina.”
I’m telling the story in this way because by rights, Pina should be a superb, ravishing event, a tribute to Pina Bausch herself, and a signal that the future of 3D at the movies is far richer than it might have seemed. But I’m not sure.
The movie uses four of Bausch’s dances: The Rite of Spring, to Stravinsky’s music, on a stage covered with coffee-colored peat, with a male and a female troupe and a vivid red scarf as the metaphor for menstrual blood. Café Mueller is a study in oppressive routine: a blind woman in white tries to enter a room full of chairs as men in black keep moving the chairs. Kontakthof is a waiting-room piece, with one group of young dancers and another much older. The last, Vollmond, is a world in which flood surrounds a great rock. These set-pieces are intercut with close-ups of some of her dancers—glorious, inspired faces—as we hear them talk about what Pina meant to them, though we do not see them talking. There is also a little newsreel or documentary material of Pina herself teaching and watching. Most interesting of all, there are some fragments of dance done in Wuppertal itself: on the streets, at a power station, in front of slag heaps. It’s in these moments that one feels the choreography’s most intense and troubled engagement with the world at large. So should the entire film have been done in the open? I’m not sure.
I know too little about modern dance to offer an expert commentary, but I have eyes to see that Pina Bausch had access to a language of desirous and thwarted movement that is riveting and political. The restraints her dancers struggle with are more than physical or technical. The dancers are emotional and resistant, battling the social construction of the world and its attempt to organize dread and desire. This is more neurotic dance than ecstasy or sublimity. When I watched the trailer to Pina, I could not wait to see the movie itself: It had moments of broken melody and breathtaking shots of women falling like felled trees and being caught by a man at the last moment. Those things are in Pina, but they are not as central and animating as they seemed in the trailer.
Is 3D the problem, no matter that Wenders has declared he will never do another film any other way? There are enough moments when the camera’s immersion in the dance seems exciting and even dangerous, but I wonder how far these movements and the sense of being on the stage are distracting. Space and formation—and dancers creating changing shapes within them—are things that may require a full, static point-of-view. That’s how Fred Astaire directed all the dance numbers in his films. Too often in Pina I felt like a player on a football field, wondering who was going to hit me in the back next.
3D has become such a war chant now, and its enthusiasts are alive with the news that not just Wenders but Martin Scorsese (Hugo) and Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) have taken it up. Very soon, the wonders of Titanic will be back in 3D. We the people seem to have bought the package, and forgotten that all along in movies, as in paintings, there could be an illusion of depth and distance that didn’t keep hitting you over the head with novelties and gotchas. Do you need 3D to feel Omar Sharif’s mirage silhouette coming in the distance of Lawrence of Arabia?
I’m nearly sure that I find 3D a bothersome diversion from what movies might be about. For sure, sometimes, there are shots and views that are spellbinding. But 3D is not natural depth—as in the movies of Renoir, Welles and Wyler—it is a series of layers or levels in which sometimes the people and the place do not seem to be together. It’s harder for characters to look at one another in 3D. Sometimes it’s like the feeling of a whole pack of back projections laid on top of each other—not without allure or mystery, but enough to lose the story.
You should see Pina for yourself, because honestly I’m not sure. It’s a tribute, a beautiful occasion and a loving gesture, but I don’t think it’s much of a movie.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.