Wim Wenders's documentary "Pina" was made in 3-D, and, along with Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," it represents an artistic high point in the use of that much-maligned process. Is there something in the German visual tradition, I wonder, that drew these artists to 3-D?
In any case, the low esteem in which 3-D movies are held is generally deserved. By now, we've probably all had our fill of 3-D films that seem to exist only to gouge us at the box office and are often little more than refabricated 2-D movies anyway.
"Pina" began as a long-gestating idea between Wenders, one of Germany's most respected film directors, and his friend Pina Bausch, the German dancer and choreographer whose company is based in the northwestern German city of Wuppertal. When Bausch died suddenly in 2009, just as the project looked as if it was finally ready to roll, Wenders had to abruptly change course. What was intended as a collaboration with Bausch became instead a kind of testimonial featuring members of her troupe performing large excerpts from her most famous choreography.
Bausch's work, which can seem alternately jagged, expressionistic, chilly, and showy, has been showcased before in the movies, notably in a 1983 documentary by Chantal Akerman ("On Tour With Pina Bausch") and in Pedro Almodóvar's "Talk to Her," which displayed her famous "Café Muller," in which dancers, to the music of Henry Purcell, fling themselves over and around wooden chairs. (This signature dance was one of the relatively rare numbers in which Bausch herself often appeared.)
"Café Muller" makes its appearance in "Pina" along with many other high-profile examples of her artistry, including her choreography for Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," which premièred in 1975 and has the dancers padding across an earth-covered stage; "Vollmond," with an onstage waterfall soaking the dancers; and "Kontakthof," which was partially filmed before a live audience.
But the locations for the dances in "Pina" often burst the bounds of the stage, utilizing high school gymnasiums, public swimming pools, forests, and, perhaps the weirdest backdrop, an industrial refinery, as a dancer en pointe swirls in ballet slippers.
From my decidedly inexpert vantage point, Bausch's work, which often centers on the ravages of mortality, seems more stunning than beautiful, more intellectualized than emotional. The way she displays her dancer's movements is heavy-going, almost punitive, as if the dancers were expressionist puppets made flesh. The puppeteer motif comes through in the many interviews that Wenders has conducted, with the dancers' words dubbed on the soundtrack over their silent faces. They look like members of a secret sect. Multinational, ranging widely in age, the dancers are united by their incense-burning adoration of Bausch, whose sayings are repeated as Scripture: "Go on searching," "Dance for love," and "Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost."
Bausch, of course, is not alone among choreographers in the cult-like adoration she provoked. A similar scenario could be worked up for Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Alvin Ailey, and many others. But in the context of Bausch's overall otherworldliness, the testimonials here feel more spooky than enlightening, especially since, except for a few archival excerpts, Wenders provides almost no background into Bausch's life or artistry. She appears to have descended fully formed from the clouds.
In his free-form use of 3-D, Wenders fully justifies his long wait in making this movie. (Until the latest digital processes were developed he felt he could not do justice to her dance.) The purist approach to dance on film holds that the director must always show full bodies in full motion, and for the most part I have agreed with this dictum (especially since Fred Astaire, no less, demanded it). Nothing is worse than seeing snippets of limbs in snippets of performance.
Wenders, it's true, does not often show entire dances in "Pina," and he breaks up the movements, too. But his cinematic pyrotechnics are always at the service of the dance. He's not competing with Bausch, he's collaborating with her, or at least with her muse. You may not feel like dancing after watching "Pina" – unless you have a thing for earth in your shoes – but you'll certainly know you've seen something. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for some sensuality/partial nudity and smoking.)