Director Wim Wenders was not at all interested in dance before a girlfriend dragged him to see Cafe Müller and Le Sacre du Printemps by German avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch. Expecting to be terribly bored, Wenders was instead so transfixed, he decided to showcase Pina's work in a documentary. Pina, the 3D film that resulted, is up for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Musical subjects are not new to Wenders, who highlighted Cuban musicians in Buena Vista Social Club and American blues in The Soul of a Man. But here his approach is almost entirely non-narrative. No dance critics or biographers talk about the life or technique of Pina, who died of cancer in 2009, just before filming began. The only commentary is by members of her Tanztheater Wuppertal company, who talk about what Pina meant to them: "She was like a house with an attic full of treasures." "She saw everything, even with closed eyes." "Pina was a painter; we became the paint."
Without narration, the movie becomes an entirely visceral experience of Pina's work, set to music ranging from classical to Cat Power. The 3D technology, never obtrusive, brings the viewer onstage as the dancers perform the gloriously savage Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) to Stravinsky's music, on a stage covered with peat. Cafe Müller features the dancers crashing through a room of tables and chairs, culminating in an eerie pas de deux in which a "blind" dancer embraces her male partner, then falls limp through his arms again and again. In the ecstatic Vollmond, performed in a pool of shallow water, the dancers interact with a giant boulder, throwing pails of water on it, sliding up, down, and under it.
Pina's choreography is characterized by a savage eroticism reminiscent of the paintings of Frida Kahlo; in one piece, the dancers perform with lipstick smeared on their faces. Wenders' decision to focus on Pina's dances and not her life is in some ways a strength, creating a pure experience of dance. But in other ways it's a weakness, because it leaves unsatisfied the curiosity it provokes. What in this gentle woman's life inspired these furious emotional themes?
Frustrating as Pina may be for more left-brained viewers, its presentation of the dances is exquisite. Wenders takes them out of the theater and places them in unexpected settings around the city of Wuppertal — under an elevated train, inside a factory, by a swimming pool, atop a mountain bluff. These natural contexts make Pina's dances seem even more organic. Still, it's hard not to crave more information about Pina and the technical components of her works, including the captivating costumes.
But Wenders' focus on the emotional experience of Pina's work is a fitting tribute to the choreographer, who disliked verbal explanations. "I'm not interested in how people move," she said, "but what moves them."