Film Review: Pina

With a breakout use of 3D for artistic rather than solely commercial blockbuster purposes, German director Wim Wenders gives extraordinary life to the work of choreographer Pina Bausch.

The mesmerizing Pina, a documentary about the work and life—for her, one and the same—of Pina Bausch, the artistic head of Tanztheater (literally, Dance Theater) Wuppertal who died in 2009, demanded a unique solution to every documentarian’s worst fear: the sudden death of your subject. Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Buena Vista Social Club) had decided with his friend Bausch to use four of her most celebrated choreographed works—Le Sacre du Printemps, Café Muller, Kontakthof and Vollmond— for a film. And he had finally found what he considered a necessary tool for filming dance: a 3D inspiration taken from the concert film U2 3D.

The unexpected wallop of her death halted production, but at the insistence of her ensemble, Wenders went ahead, with a new structure. The multicultural dancers talk about their loss, and what Pina meant to them, in their own languages, looking directly at the camera in brief headshots, or in voiceover while dancing. At first this seems odd for a film so unique in other ways, yet this plain frame perfectly sets off other visual knockouts. And there are plenty.

The indoor dance sequences move away from static “filmed theatre”—first alert being the gentle surprise of a gauzy curtain suddenly wafting right toward you—and we seem to be one with the dancers, onstage in a new, almost organic way, maybe owing to a camera intimately close to the dancers: You can’t “tell the dancer from the dance.” It looks, nearly feels, like more than one physical plane at times, especially the rain in Vollmond (Full Moon), featuring the kinetic Ditta Miranda Jasjfi. Clearly, she has gotten over what she says was her shyness, with the help of Bausch. “Why are you afraid of me, Ditta? I’ve done nothing to you,” she says Pina queried her. “She was right,” Ditta says. This was Pina’s leadership style, seeming to see into the essence of each of her dancers. “You have to get crazier,” she advises another dancer, guru-like.

The “opened out” scenes are simply spectacular, both in concept and the 3D execution as the dancers perform in and around this Northern German industrial town: in parks, on quarry edges, in abandoned factories, and especially using the Wuppertal Suspension line, an overhead railway. The juxtapositions are startling, the extensions into space a delight. A lovely pas de deux is performed in a city intersection, with traffic whizzing by. A dancer energetically lifts himself out of a canyon onto a huge natural vista (reminiscent of Wenders’ American West in Paris, Texas, though her troupe also mention Pina’s obsession with obstacles). A green-gowned dancer performs next to an indoor pool, with the matching trees outdoors viewed through glass windows, putting to rest any questions about the crispness of digital photography; you might think of Wenders’ pastel Cuba in Buena Vista Social Club, another digital documentary.

But except for some wonderful wisps of archival footage of her “sleepwalking”-style performance in her signature Café Muller, plus some select photos and shots of her overseeing her dancers, Goddess-like, we learn little of Pina the woman. Some viewers will feel shortchanged. Her life (she had one) is unexamined. There is no explanation of why she worked so hard and smoked so much, as one of her dancers wonders.

Also, unidentified dance sequences come at you in no logical order, though maybe an emotional one. For a general audience—of which count this viewer one—taking in titles and dance dates might undermine the visceral shock of some of Bausch’s images; and dance aficionados already know these pieces. Among other honors Pina is receiving, this is the first time Germany has nominated a documentary in the Oscar foreign-language category. Yet a few naysayers may still consider Pina and its requisite 3D glasses the Emperor’s New Clothes for dance, worrying that there is no way of knowing, for instance, if the new visual language of 3D could have enhanced the ballet classic The Red Shoes, or even Black Swan. For others, it will truly be the “first art film using 3D,” as it proclaims itself. (In which case, will Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams be the first 3D history-of-ideas film?) What is certain is that when you leave the theatre, for about ten minutes the world does look a little different: heightened, brightened, even deeper. Then “reality” intrudes again. But like dreams, some of the images remain. Pina the creator, channeled by Wenders, has entered our heads in a new way.