Wim Wenders, the man behind such film classics as Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire, and Buena Vista Social Club, makes movies as inspired as they are unexpected, and so it’s no surprise that his latest masterwork, next month’s Pina, is a documentary about dance from a man who, well, never had much affinity for dance. Inspired by his friendship with modern dance pioneer, the late Pina Bausch, the sweeping 3-D swan song to her legacy is at once bitter and sweet—a joyous celebration of the human form, and a stark reminder of the void now left in Bausch’s wake. Here, the German filmmaker, artist, author, playwright, and recent dance disciple opens up about the loss of his late, great friend and collaborator.
BULLETT: Did you take dance lessons when you were younger?
WIM WENDERS: I hate to disappoint you, but no. I’ve not much affinity for dance. I saw dance a few times, ballet when I was young, and I thought it was boring. Similarly, modern dance didn’t touch me, until the day my life changed when I saw, for the first time, Pina Bausch’s work. Actually, even that night when I saw for the first time the two pieces by Pina, I had to be forced to go because I didn’t really have any intention to spend any of my precious nights in Venice, Italy, in the theater.
What was it about that production that spoke to you in a way that other dance performances hadn’t?
It was the opposite of all my prejudices about dance. It spoke to me in a very direct way. My brain almost didn’t understand why my body was so, was so… into it. My body understood it way earlier than my intellect. I was stunned. I didn’t really know what hit me, why I was so moved to tears. I mean, I was crying, and didn’t know how to stop—I just let it go.
It’s interesting that you were moved to tears given that you’d originally been bored to tears.
But that’s really the way it was, and I tested it quite often. I would lure other people to a dance performance with music by saying, I’m going to take you to a play tonight. Actually, it’s a dance play. And most of them would say, “You know, dance is really not for us.” But I would force it on some of these guys. They were adamant that dance was the last thing they would want to see, and then, after 10 minutes, I would look over, and there they were with tears in their eyes, like me. That was Pina’s power.
Did that power open up your eyes to other types of dance?
It did, and I have seen some performances since that have moved me, but nothing so deeply as Pina’s work. Some performances still belong to a realm of dance that I don’t have access to, where dance is more of an aesthetic exercise. Pina made it clear that this was the part she was least interested in.
Had you known Pina socially when you went to that first dance show?
No, I didn’t even know who she was. I’d lived in America from ’77 to ’85, and I had completely missed Pina’s rise to fame in Germany and Europe. I didn’t even know her name, but my girlfriend did. She saw this poster in Venice, and it said “Pina Bausch: Retrospective.” She said, “Wim, this is something that you really have to see.” And I said, very adamantly, I don’t think this is something that I need to see. She convinced me.
Upon seeing the performance, did you immediately think it would lend itself to a film?
It was pretty immediate. In that first week that, I immersed myself in Pina’s work. I prolonged my stay in Venice, and I saw all six pieces at the retrospective. In that week, I met Pina as well. In my juvenile enthusiasm, I said to this woman I barely knew, Pina, we have to do something together. She didn’t quite react to what I’d said—in fact, she didn’t react at all. She just lit another cigarette and smiled, and so I changed the subject.
When she eventually came around, how long had you two been discussing making a film together?
Believe it or not, a little more than 20 years. It was a little playful in the beginning, and then it became more serious. I sat down to write a treatment, but in order to write a treatment you need to sort of know how you want to do something. The more I tried to think about how I would shoot Pina’s work, the more I realized I didn’t know how to shoot Pina’s work. Whenever I would see a new piece of hers, and I saw each and every one, I would sit there and realize I didn’t have the goods. I didn’t have the tools to do it. My craft just wasn’t good enough. I really tried everything. I watched the entire history of dance movies in order to get inspiration, but even with Singin’ in the Rain or The Red Shoes, I feel like I was outside looking in—I couldn’t really enter into that world. And so I told Pina, I don’t have a clue how to do it, and I don’t want to disappoint you. Give me some time, I need to find an approach.
She was patient with me, but she said, “There’s got to be a way. Think harder.” It became a running joke between the two of us. She would look at me and say, Did you find it? I would shrug my shoulders and say, “Not yet, Pina!” It only came to me when, by chance, I saw a 3-D film. That was the tool I had been missing without even knowing I’d been missing it. It never even hit me that 3-D would be a possibility. The first time I put on the glasses, I thought, There it is.
What was it about the third dimension?
It was more immersive, of course—that’s sort of obvious—but I was more about hoping that the physicality of dance could come out differently. I only discovered it while shooting the film that 3-D was really able to show the human body in a really different way than before. All of the 3-D films I’d seen until then showed space, but they did not show me a human body as something with volume. The people in them were sort of cutouts. We started our film long before Avatar came out—it was the beginning of the infancy of 3-D—and we desperate to invent something different than the effect-driven 3D we had seen before. My hopes were met because this language could not only show depth and space, but it could really show the human body in a different way.
I would imagine yours was a steep learning curve.
I’d never made a dance film, let alone a 3-D dance film! On two different levels, it was a totally new universe and a blank spot on my cinematic map, and it was absolutely intriguing to enter that territory. Pina’s troop—since Pina is no longer with us—were so inviting and gentle, and they were so eager to let us and the audience into their world. The steep of learning was the technology, because I really didn’t have any experience. It’s not like I could just call James Cameron and say, Hey, Jimmy, how does this 3-D thing work? I had to learn by doing, and, let me tell you, we made so many mistakes along the way. But as went along, we learned to eliminate those mistakes, how to shoot differently and how to move the camera differently.
Was Pina immediately on board with doing a 3-D film?
Oh, yes, although she’d never seen a 3-D movie in her life. She was never really inclined to go see a movie at the theater. She said, ‘When you’re ready, when you can show my own dances in this new technology, that’s when I’ll understand.” And that’s what we did. We prepared and we advanced the technology for more than a year, and when we were finally ready to have our last and conclusive test on Pina’s stage with her own dancers, that’s when we got the call that Pina passed away.
Did her passing in any way motivate you to continue the project?
No, it had the opposite effect. We were all sitting in the office in Berlin, me and the dancers, trying to make a schedule so that we could test everything and show it to Pina on the big screen. And then came that call. I said, Well guys, that movie is over with. We are not going to do it anymore. I called the financiers and co-producers and said, It’s finished. We are not going to make the movie. I pulled the plug. It was very, very sad and tragic. It felt like we’d started it too late.
It was only when I joined the dancers two months later for the official eulogy that was done in Pina’s hometown, Wuppertal, that I reconsidered. I met the dancers backstage, for the first time since Pina’s death, and that’s when they told me, “We are starting to rehearse the pieces Pina and you had put on the schedule. Please remember how much Pina wanted you to film them. We understand that you cannot make the film with Pina anymore, but maybe there is another film we can make together.” They didn’t put a gun to my chest, but they made it clear that if I wanted to, and if I had the guts to do it, we could make a very different film—not with Pina, obviously, but for Pina. In that moment, it dawned on me how important it was to them as well. They were a shell-shocked bunch, and they decided to go on as a company and to fulfill all of their obligations and tours. I realized that they might need the movie even more than I did. They needed a way to say goodbye, and so we jump-started the film again.
Pina is an overarching celebration of your friend’s life and career, and of dance more generally, but I’m curious to know if it feels celebratory for you when watching it.
Well, happiness and sadness were so close to each other all the way throughout its making. When we made the movie we realized that Pina wouldn’t want us to disappear, but to do something joyful to oppose the loss. When I finally watched the completed film, a film I’d made on my own with the dancers, without her, it almost felt as if she were looking over my shoulder. She was still there. Every days, I’d asked myself, How is Pina going to like it? Is it good enough? Is this what I promised to her? Now that people have embraced the film with so much emotion, well, that’s sort of the healing power of Pina’s work. I always felt like Pina’s work had done something so positive in my life, and it was contagious. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to make the film in the first place: to pass the virus onto other people. Now that it’s out, I firmly believe that Pina is going to be happy with it.