German director Wim Wenders’ new documentary film, Pina, began as a collaborative project between the filmmaker and the dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch. But only days before beginning the shoot, Bausch unexpectedly passed away. It took months for Wenders to return to the project, after the urging of Bausch’s dancers at the Tanztheater Wuppertal. What the dancers and the director eventually created, is more than a documentary about the Pina’s unmistakable choreography; it is a study of art in mourning, and the lasting impact of a great teacher on her students. FrontRow’s Peter Simek spoke with Wenders about his film and the choice to shoot it in 3D.
FrontRow: Before this interview, I happened to be looking at your documentary, Room 666, which, I guess, is now 30 years old.
Wim Wenders: It is exactly 30 years old.
FR: It turns out, I was glad I happened to look at it because it seems like an interesting place to start. The question you posed to the directors in that movie was “Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?” Now, 30 years later, both you and Werner Herzog have 3D movies. I find this interesting, especially because in Herzog’s segment in Room 666, he talks about the loss of the movie theater to television and video. Now 3D is this medium that forces audiences back into the theater. I wanted to see if that was at all playing in your mind when you were thinking about using 3D to make your new film, Pina, this idea that it is a medium that necessitates the communal experience of the movie theater. Or was it purely a practical concern about the subject matter, of trying to figure out the best way to film dancers?
WW: It resembles this wishful thinking because I could come up with a proper way to film Pina’s work and dancing, to get close to it with my tools. Finally this new tool showed up, 3D, that seemed to made for that. There is this mutual affinity for each other, and then only when I started to get acquainted with 3D and started to do tests, I realized that this was actually the case. And not only was it perfect for filming dance, but it was an actual new film language. Nobody really seemed to notice yet because it only came out in blockbusters and as an attraction. Nobody seemed to take it all that seriously, but I was convinced it was a whole new ballgame for filmmakers and would eventually be a huge revolution, but it only dawned on me as we went along. It wasn’t the reason why I used it. The reason I used it was I needed to be able to film dance properly.
FR: The main background story about the film is that when you were initially planning on doing the film, Pina was still alive, and then, I believe, it was only a few days before shooting began that she passed away. How did the vision for the film change during that transition, and did you end up making a movie that was very different than what you were trying to do beforehand?
WW: Yeah. Pina and I dreamt up a whole different movie and wanted to do it so badly together and Pina passed away. It really, literally went one day to another without any of us having the slightest idea, neither her dancers, nor her family, nor her friends, nor the film crew. So when she was gone – all of the sudden – I just pulled the plug from the movie because it seemed completely pointless. I really wanted to do it together for so long. Only weeks and weeks later after we had completely put it aside and it was no longer in my mind, the dancers brought it to my attention. They continued the company, and they actually were rehearsing the pieces that Pina and I had wanted to film for the movie. They said that maybe they were doing these pieces for the very last time, and that reminded me how much Pina had been looking forward to filming her work in 3D and finally finding a proper film language for it.
So, I had second thoughts, and together with the dancers we then decided that definitely we couldn’t make the film with Pina anymore – that was gone. But maybe we could make an altogether different film, a film that would be for Pina and would help the dancers and me to overcome that sense of loss and pain. I mean, especially for the dancers, the loss of Pina was like the carpet was pulled from under them. Some had spent their entire professional life with her and bam, she was gone. So I realize there was a necessity for the living to make this movie, in order to come to terms with death, so we jumpstarted the film and then made a very, very different film together.
FR: I think what ends up being so striking about it is the absence of Pina is that the movie really becomes about almost a discipleship or a mentorship, and that relationship that you see that comes through the artistic love, really, that they shared with her. Was that something that came out as you were shooting, realizing the deep and profound connections the dancers had to her?
WW: It slowly came out how much she had meant to all of them and how much she had also meant to me, and it slowly became a whole journey into Pina’s universe, a journey that we were taking the audience along with. The film itself was a journey into the unknown. We had not much of a concept when we started (so abruptly) again, and then slowly felt we just have to take people into the beauty, into the contagious energy, and into the very special magic that Pina always had created. And we took ourselves, immersed ourselves into that universe, so it became the film that it became. But, it took us a year and a half.
FR: Was that just figuring out what form to give it, the year and a half?
WW: Well, we shot several installments and then made long breaks because we really had to invent the film as we went along. We started in the winter. I dreamt of shooting outdoors as well, but not in the wintertime, so we shot in the next summer again. A lot of things happened, and we slowly understood how to make this film for Pina. How could I answer all the questions I would have asked Pina? The dancers could answer them, not with words, but with their bodies, the language that Pina had taught them. So, the film slowly became what it now is, but it took a while. A documentary is something that you can have as many plans and as much of a concept before, but then you just have to grab it when its there and you have to create the situations. And it took a long time. It took the longest time ever in editing because I had so much stuff. I mean, the pieces alone were several hours and there were multiple cameras. I had hundreds of hours of material. It took a long time. It was a long process. Only in the very end I felt, yes, this is a good image of Pina altogether.
FR: What comes across during the segments with the individual dancers is that they are not just about Pina, or Pina’s choreography, but also the way that Pina helped her dancers understand themselves through dancing and also discovering their own place within the context of whole company. This movie is really a biography of a troupe.
WW: I remember one of Pina’s key beliefs. She said it once very clearly, she said, “I’m not interested in how my dancers move; I’m interested in what moves them.” And of course that is the whole revolution that she coined in a nutshell, to understand that dance is something that shows us who we are instead of showing us an aesthetic experience. So I tried the same path with the film and tried to find out, who are these people who have spent all their lives dedicated to Pina, who for years have become her disciples? What is dance showing each and every one of us and each and every member of the audience? What can we learn about ourselves, and why is it such a fantastic language that we all know, and yet do not know? I tried to sort of use Pina’s own methods to develop this film, and ask the dancers lots of questions. With Pina, they were not allowed to answer with words; they were to only able answer with their bodies, with dance. I am not a choreographer, I asked them to answer with something that Pina’s eyes had been on and that they had developed along with Pina. They all gave me elaborate answers, with their body language, about Pina Bausch.
FR: The whole question of language, and the various natures of artistic language, seems very much a part of what this movie is about, partly because that’s the subject – the dance – but also, back to the idea of using 3D, trying to figure out what’s the best way to translate dance language into film language? Frederick Weisman had just done a documentary, La Danse, early last year. What struck me about his film was that was he often kept the camera very much away, almost like the audience third person, where you’re seeing the dance as it is happening on the stage. You do some of that, but then at times you bring the camera into the dance itself, so it’s an experience of the dance that is more akin to how a dancer would experience dance, not the audience. What were your concerns with rendering dance onscreen?
WW: Pina’s work is so unbelievably physical, and sometimes even in the audience you sit there and you almost feel like your body was transported — you would like to be onstage with them. So we went in the middle of them sometimes, sometimes the camera was dancing with the dancers. As its all in 3D, it’s a very immersive experience. My main concern was to not make a film for dancers or people who had known Pina Bausch, but really make it for people, like, I was one myself, before I ever saw Pina’s work, who thought dance was not for them. That’s the kind of people we want to get involved and show them that dance is something altogether different and that they could enjoy it in a way they would never imagine.
FR: When did you first encounter Pina’s work?
WW: It was now a quarter of a century ago. I was one of those dance resistant people, and actually tried hard not to go with my girlfriend when she suggested in the mid-eighties that we go and see this double bill of Pina Bausch. I said, ‘No, you go, I’m going to walk around a little bit.” Because that was inVenice,Italy, and that’s a beautiful town to walk around in. But she was adamant. And there I was ready for a boring evening of dance, and then it changed my life because it was mind blowing, electrifying; it struck me like lightning. I found myself crying for the entire evening because it was so powerful and so emotional. And that did change my life that night, and ever since then I wanted to make that movie.
FR: Let’s go back to the Room 666 question, I’d love to hear how your thoughts have changed over the years in terms of cinema as a language and where does it go? What struck me about Herzog’s response was that a lot of the things he’s describing in the movie, these technologies – turning on and off TV’s, being able to go to the bank through a video screen – they have all kind of come to fruition. So has it changed how you think about where cinema is as a language, and now that so much film is being consumed through computers, and online streaming, and all that kind of thing.
WW: I mean, there’s a whole different ballgame. When I made that documentary, I asked all these colleagues of mine, and a lot of people answered the question about the future and where was it going. That was in 1982. There was Spielberg, and Antonioni, and Godard, and you name it. But a lot of them were sort of down on movies. And that time, the early-eighties, was sort of a low for cinema. It didn’t seem to advance any. Television seemed to invade it in the language of commercials. Video was coming out for the first time, and you could rent movies, and it was a strange time in cinema. Only a couple of people had insight into the future, like Antonioni, who said we’re all going to become different people and film will be this whole different thing we can’t even lay our hands on. He vaguely tried to describe what now is reality, with digital technology and all these different outlets.
Now basically everybody can become a filmmaker, you can make a movie with a tools you can buy at the shop next door with your home computer. And now there is this incredible new dimension, and luckily the new dimension forces audiences back into the theater. It’s really something for the theatrical experience in a magnificent way. It’s the very beginning of scratching the surface of what we can do with this whole new film language, especially for story telling. It’s not quite clear how to use it properly. Very few filmmakers have so far laid their hands on it and tried to do something other than just blockbusters and action movies. Of course, they have occupied the territory so far, but now it’s up to independent filmmakers to really show what to do with it, especially documentary filmmakers because 3D will completely revolutionize and put it on a whole new level.
FR: That’s interesting, that there have only been a handful of independent filmmakers using 3D, and both you and Herzog immediately went to the documentary. It seems to be more intuitive to use that form.
WW: Wait until you see the next wave of documentaries in 3D, and wait until you see the first independents using it intelligently with films that are really written for this new medium and don’t just use it in the hope that it would mean something commercially. The 3D films of the future will be thought in 3D and will take us into places where, so far, cinema hasn’t been. I’m totally convinced
FR: Are you thinking of a narrative 3D feature at this point?
WW: Well, I don’t want to go back. I’m hoping, I must say. I’m preparing a long-term documentary in 3D as well as a feature—a family story, actually, in 3D, because I think it still needs to be shown that this new medium is also good for intimate stories and not just for action and blockbusters.