The German choreographer Pina Bausch died while director Wim Wenders was still in pre-production on their splashy collaboration, which would preserve on film a handful of her dances. It was at the pleading of her collaborators that Wenders reneged on killing the project. And so, the result, Pina, is a catalogue of her work as well as a memorial, plus in turn a Bausch primer.
The choreographer hewed to the expressionist dance movement known as “Tanztheater,” which introduced theater to dance. The dancers are thus battling extra element on stage. Her do-up of The Rite of Spring reinterprets the Stravinsky as a battle of the sexes amidst a stage decked out with soil, while Vollmond floods the stage with water, sending the performers clamoring for safety upon giant rocks. Of the four dances on display, moviegoers may recognize Café Müller, a chaotic number, involving performing amidst a sea of chairs and tables, that opened Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. No shock, given the theatrics, that Bausch’s work lends itself easily to cinema, especially when couriered to us via the magic of 3-D. (After this and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2011 was a good year for New German Cinema greats making excellent use of a technology usually applied cynically.)
Apart from Bausch, Pina also marks the return to basic competence for Wenders, the poster child for a terrific filmmaker who lost his once copious gifts. Always erratic, he flamed out utterly in the mid-'90s, around the time Hollywood was bludgeoning one of his hits, Wings of Desire, into the execrable City of Angels. Wenders couldn’t even make a likable film out of the Buena Vista Social Club doc of the same name.
With Pina, he does struggle with organization; the added element of memorial, with her dancers and collaborators routinely interrupting the fun to eulogize, too often registers as a distraction, in part because the testimonials, while heartfelt, usually prove banal and unenlightening. But he knows how to film a Bausch dance, be it by plopping us into the action or by switching locals from stage to the outdoors, remote glass houses or on board the Wuppertal Schuebebahn suspension railway. Pina thus resuscitates two careers: one (Bausch) in the past, one (Wenders) hopefully with a new future.