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Wim Wenders on the Bittersweet Making of His 3-D Pina Bausch Documentary

Wim Wenders. Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for AFI

More than twenty years ago, Wim Wenders promised his good friend Pina Bausch, a German choreographer known for her expressive and highly unusual Tanztheater pieces, that they’d collaborate on a film together about her work. The director struggled to come up with a way to do justice to her powerful dance pieces until he finally stumbled upon the idea to shoot in 3-D. First Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, now Pina: Is it a new era for highbrow in three dimensions? We chatted with Wenders about the future of the medium, his friendship with the late choreographer, and how the filmmaking process helped him and her dancers come to terms with her death.

What was it about Pina’s work that you found so compelling?
At first I didn’t really understand why I was so taken by it. To me, dance was an aesthetic enterprise, an expression that was in itself not emotional. But none of my prejudices against dance kept me from being moved to tears by Pina’s pieces each time I saw them. I slowly realized she wasn’t into any of the aesthetics of dance — she didn’t even care. She once said, “I’m not interested in how my dancers move at all. I only want to know what moves them.” And that of course is turning dance completely upside down, it’s the reverse approach to what dance until then was. It was in no way an aesthetic exercise. It was a sheer expression of existential concerns, a human expression more basic than even language.

How did Pina’s sudden death affect the project and the way it unfolded?
It was the end of the project. Period. I pulled the plug an hour after we got the call that Pina had died. I called the co-production partners, the financing partners, the crew, everybody, and said, “No more movie. It’s over.” Pina and I really had wanted to make this together. We had dreamed of this for more than twenty years, and to do it without her was completely out of the question. I canceled it without the intention of ever working on it again. But her dancers didn’t stop: Even on the night Pina died, they performed. They were crying, but they did it. They decided to continue as a company and fulfill all of the obligations that Pina had going on for the next two years, tours and performances. Then it dawned on me that maybe there was a reason to continue. If I couldn’t make the movie with Pina anymore, perhaps the dancers and I could make a film for Pina — and in a strange way, for ourselves, too. None of the dancers had been able to say good-bye or thank-you to Pina. Her death was so sudden, and had just pulled the carpet from under all of them. I figured that in preserving these pieces and making this film together, there was a way to come to terms with the loss and sorrow.

The most striking thing about Pina was its use of 3-D — it was the first time I saw a 3-D film that made use of the medium in a way that wasn’t really gimmicky. How did that decision come about?
Pina and I had wanted to do this film together for twenty years; we had even shaken hands on it. And then I got scared because I just didn’t know how to do justice to the magic of Pina’s work with the tools I had. I tried all sorts of things with hand cameras, cranes, steady cameras — whatever a camera can do. But I felt always like a voyeur with my cameras, on the outside looking in, and that bothered the shit out of me. I could never really be with the dancers, and I could never really be inside Pina’s world. Pina was getting impatient with me, and I just had to tell her I didn’t know how to do it.

Then one day I saw U2 3D, and it was the answer to twenty years of worrying and questioning and torturing my mind about how to do this film with Pina. That was the solution, I realized. We had finally a new tool, space — and that new tool would allow me to be in the realm of dance, no longer just staring at it. Space, after all, is the dancer’s key element: They create space with every step and gesture. In filmmaking, space had always been so fake. You make cameras fall out of windows and put them in cars and helicopters and airplanes, but in the end it was always on a two-dimensional screen. For the first time, I had a tool that wasn’t fake.

What were the biggest challenges to shooting in 3-D?
The biggest challenge was completely unexpected, because as much as 3-D could handle space, astonishingly enough it could not handle movement — like if somebody moved fast in front of the camera. In the very first test I was horrified: My assistant moved in front of the camera just to see what would happen, ran across the room, moved in circles. And then a few hours later we screened it, and my assistant had become an Indian goddess with multitudes of arms and legs.

Do you want to continue working with 3-D?
We’ve only barely scratched the surface of its potential. 3-D is as big of a step for cinema as from silent to sound — only nobody’s really noticed so far, or very few people really noticed how big and how unexploited it is. This really is a new language. And in storytelling it’s almost not touched. No one has really used it in a way that I would say that it’s necessary, and it really brought something to the story. I never saw that. I saw all these movies and I’d get quite desperate, because I really started to be afraid that the new language would be destroyed and gone forever before it was even understood.

What about Cave of Forgotten Dreams?
I was happy when Werner used it. I mean, it was a different application. Werner made the film spontaneously, and rather on short notice. We’ve been friends for 40 years, but I had no idea Werner was making a film and vice versa. He’s an impatient man and 3-D does need patience, at least right now. There were glorious moments in the film, but sometimes I thought he was rushing it a bit too much. But it did show the medium’s potential. I think it confirms that 3-D might even find better applications in the documentary field than in the fiction field.
How would Pina respond to your film if she were to see it?
That’s a tough question. Because we had planned to do it together for so long, and then I found myself standing there alone, doing it with the dancers, I had to answer that question almost every day. With every piece we shot, Pina was looking over my shoulder as I asked myself, “Is it good enough? Is this what I promised her? Would she have done something different? Is this done with the proper respect? Do I have the right angle? Am I showing it really as the new language that Pina was hoping we’d find together?” And then I had to answer that in the editing room every day. I showed the film to the dancers about a week before it came out, and they really liked it — it was a very emotional day because a lot of them had not seen or heard Pina since before her death. It was then I knew Pina would be happy with this.

Wim Wenders on the Bittersweet Making of His 3-D Pina Bausch Documentary