When avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch died suddenly in 2009, filmmaker Wim Wenders not only mourned his close friend. He felt he could no longer make the film they would have begun shooting two days later. His hope of finally bringing her emotional and ground-breaking work to a larger audience ended abruptly after almost twenty years of collaboration.
"My interest was to see and film Pina's eyes at work. We cancelled the film and pulled the plug," he said. "Only when the dancers made me understand a month or two months later that we could make a different film, not of Pina but for Pina, did I think I could do it."
What Wenders and the Pina Bausch company have created with their documentary, "Pina," which opens in Los Angeles January 13, is an elegy, a meditation, an emotional roller coaster ride through life and all its emotions depicted almost soundlessly through movement.
Recently, Wenders sat down for interviews to talk about the experience of making his latest film. Dressed in a natty but rumpled three-piece suit, and in a blue mood with royal blue glasses framing his eyes, a blue shirt and a blue wristwatch on his arm, Wenders talked passionately about the challenges of making this film. He had pondered for years just how to capture and communicate the power, emotion and simplicity that characterized Bausch's work.
Finally, in 2008, he started playing with 3D technology. "I was convinced that 3D was the perfect language for dance, the answer to 20 years of hesitation, and stalling and ruining my brain wondering how to make an appropriate film of Pina's work. Dance and 3D could bring out the best in each other...But this was before 'Avatar,' and 3D was really in its infancy."
There were many physical challenges working with unwieldy cameras unable to capture the fluidity and elegance of Bausch's movements. "My assistant became a four-armed Indian goddess" trying to move and shoot in 3-D with the bulky cameras available at the time. Wenders also sensed a huge opportunity and he dove in, modifying the cameras and adapting them as he went along. In the end, Wenders was able to stand back and allow the dancers to pay their very personal tribute to Bausch, in the visual language that Bausch taught them to use. "In the best possible sense of the word," he said, "technology was at the service of these emotions."
"I cried my heart out the first time I saw a piece by Pina, not really knowing what hit me," Wenders explained. "Her dance is so physical, it involved the bodies of her dancers so much...Pina's work was not just an aesthetic experience, it is an existential experience. It is about life. She said it best herself. 'I am not interested in how my dancers move, I'm interested in what moves them.'"
The film was shot in and around Wupperthal, Germany, where the company is based. "Wupperthal has an incredibly rich history, industrial landscapes, a richness of possibilities. It was great to be outdoors in the sunlight, have the horizon, the hanging train, the city and industrial landscape," Wenders said. Indeed, seeing the dancers move along mountaintops, on streetcorners, with railways speeding above them or onstage in the pouring rain is shocking, and exhilarating, and gives the film a very unique visual framework. Wenders, who has been a photographer since his teens, used his sharp eye to great advantage.
Moving on without Pina by his side was difficult. "I had to face the question every day: What would Pina think? She was looking over my shoulder with each and every shot. Does Pina like it? Is this good enough? She was very present, for the dancers and myself. Her spirit is there and amazing...Only when I edited the film and first showed it to the dancers and they felt that Pina's universe was well-preserved in the film did I feel that Pina would approve."
Working with Pina's troupe was also a very different directing experience for Wenders, whose films include "Wings of Desire," "The State of Things," "Paris, Texas," and "The Buena Vista Social Club."
"She had assembled a strange utopian humanity around her," he said. "So different than the typical directing experience, where you work with actors for a few months. Pina's relationship with her dancers went on for decades...
"I don't know how I will continue working with actors after this experience. Over the course of one year I did not have one complaint, not one single scene of jealousy. None of that stuff you are used to on every movie crew. I was privileged to work with them."
And ultimately, Wenders was satisfied by the technological accomplishment of "Pina."
"The challenge was big, working with such a new language. We tried to imitate what two eyes are doing, and what the brain does with what two eyes do. To really be in awe of what our two eyes do every day," he said.
He must have done something right. After a brief opening to qualify for Oscar consideration, "Pina" is currently on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination in the documentary category.