Director Wim Wenders could find himself in the running for two Oscars next year. His new 3-D documentary, Pina—a tribute to innovative German choreographer Pina Bausch—is among the 15 films shortlisted by the Academy for best documentary. And the film is also the official German entry in the best foreign film category, so it’s conceivable that Pina could be competing in both categories, which has never happened before. (The film opens today [December 23] in New York and will open in more theaters around the country early in 2012.) Wenders himself was surprised that Pina was picked by the German selection committee to compete in the foreign film race; narrative features are more likely to make the cut. “You can’t schmooze that committee,” he says. “We were taken by surprise when they chose us.”
The recognition is overdue. Wenders has frequently re-invented himself since emerging as part of the new wave of German cinema in the early 1970s. He made a splash at the same time that two other new directors—Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder—were helping to revitalize their country’s movie business. Fassbinder died almost 30 years ago, while Herzog is still thriving. In fact, both Herzog and Wenders premiered 3-D documentaries at the Berlin Film Festival last February. “We didn’t know of each other’s films,” Wenders says. “They were both programmed on the same day in Berlin because they only had one theater that was equipped to show 3-D movies.” Herzog’s movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was the highest grossing documentary released in the U.S. in 2011, but it was not eligible for the Oscar. Nevertheless, Wenders admired the film. “Werner is an adventurer,” he says. “Here we are these two old German war horses in front of a whole new wagon.”
Like Herzog, Wenders has kept himself stimulated by making many different kinds of movies over the course of a 40-year career. He started out with enterprising German films like Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road, was lured to America to make Hammett (which was re-cut by Francis Ford Coppola, to Wenders’ dismay) and Paris, Texas (a cult favorite written by Sam Shepard and starring Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski). He scored another success back in Germany with the supernatural fantasy, Wings of Desire, and more recently has been drawn to documentary films like the exuberant, Oscar-nominated salute to Cuban musicians, Buena Vista Social Club. Now he’s one of the few filmmakers exploring 3-D technology in an innovative way. The dance sequences in Pina are breathtakingly filmed—some in the theater, some in outdoor settings. “You are in the dance,” Wenders says of the immediacy he hoped to convey. “You’re no longer outside looking in.”
Pina had a long gestation period. Wenders became entranced by Bausch’s work for the theater when he saw a performance of one of her pieces, “Café Muller,” in 1985. At that time he and Bausch began speaking about a film project that would incorporate her work. “But the process was delayed by my inability to imagine how to do it,” Wenders says. “Pina wanted to find an appropriate way to film her work. The recordings that existed were a far cry from what she had intended. Dance theater is a very fragile art. She wanted to find a language for her work to be preserved. We kept talking about it, and I kept stalling. She was patient with me.”
Finally, in 2007, Wenders saw a 3-D concert film with U2 at the Cannes Film Festival. He called Bausch excitedly and told her that he finally saw a way to make their film. But it took another two years to solve the technical challenges. In preparation for the film, Bausch planned her program for the fall of 2009 with four ballets that Wenders could film: “Café Muller,” “Le Sacre Du Printemps,” “Kontakthof,” and one of her most recent creations, “Vollmond.” 3-D rehearsals were set to begin in the summer of 2009. But Bausch died suddenly on June 30—five days after being diagnosed with cancer, and just two days before she was to watch the first 3-D tests. Wenders was shattered and thought of abandoning the project. After a period of mourning and reflection, he decided to go ahead with the film as a way of honoring his close friend of 25 years.
Much of the project had to be reconceived after Bausch’s death. “My original plan was to show Pina’s eyes at work,” Wenders explains. With this in mind, he intended to film rehearsals, along with Bausch’s critiques after each performance. He also planned to travel with her and the company to Korea and South America. “We had been talking about this for so long,” Wenders comments emotionally. “Pina was so excited about it.” But without Bausch’s presence, the film had to be re-imagined. The four dance pieces they had discussed were still on the schedule for the 2009-2010 season, so Wenders filmed those four pieces. Three were done in the theater. The fourth, “Kontakthof,” was filmed without an audience, with members of the company as well as with non-professional dancers. Some of the performances were filmed in public spaces outdoors.
Filming in 3-D required painstaking preparation, especially because Wenders did not want to ape the tacky approach taken in other 3-D movies. He was inspired by the effects James Cameron achieved in Avatar, but he has not been impressed with most of the movies since then, and he notes that audiences have also been losing interest. “People are fed up with most 3-D movies, and rightfully so,” Wenders asserts. “The studios are not interested in a new language; they’re just interested in creating an attraction. The grandeur of Cameron’s vision hasn’t really been matched. We’ve seen enough of things flying out of the screen into the audience.”
The intimacy and depth of the images in Pina are something new. Bausch herself is not a total stranger to the film medium. She had a role in Fellini’s 1983 movie, And the Ship Sails On. A memorable sequence in Pedro Almodovar’s 2002 film, Talk to Her, featured a Bausch dance performance. And another documentary released in Germany soon after her death, Tanztraume, chronicled her work with young dancers. But the 3-D effects that Wenders achieves may bring her work to a brand new audience.
Wenders has found the documentary form to be a welcome new direction for him. “I’ve been slowly drifting toward reality-based film,” he observes. “In fiction the rules just keep getting tighter. Documentaries have no boundaries. You also have a chance to share something you discover. Buena Vista Social Club is a music documentary, but it’s also a fairy tale. The musicians were penniless when we started the film; they were shining shoes on the streets of Havana. At the end they’re performing in Carnegie Hall. It’s sheer luck when you can be there to record something like that.”
While he hopes to do more documentaries, Wenders hasn’t abandoned fiction film, which will please his admirers. At a recent retrospective of his work at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, the screening of Paris, Texas drew a sold-out crowd. For years he has been hoping to make a film of Walker Percy’s novel, The Second Coming, and it may actually come to fruition soon. He also plans to utilize what he learned on Pina to make a small family drama that will be filmed in 3-D. He refuses to provide any details except the title, Everything Will Be Fine. “I hope that turns out to be true,” he says with a laugh.