In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, director Werner Herzog explored the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caverns of southern France, using a 3-D camera. The movie was quiet but magnificent. Now another director, Wim Wenders, has turned a 3-D camera on a similarly exotic and unlikely subject: the dancers of northwestern Germany’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, colleagues of the late German dance-theater choreographer Pina Bausch.
The results are no less magnificent. This suggests a simple thing: That 3-D’s effectiveness relates directly to its subject’s lack of noise, verbal or visual. The subject merely has to be alive in some way.
Bausch’s work — dense, severe, witty, hypnotic, thick with implication and substance — responds beautifully to 3-D because these are performers whose bodies and faces live in the world. They are not glamorous in the conventional sense.
But in both theatrical environments and open-air ones, with Wenders paying close attention to the geometrics as well as the psychology of the movement, Pina is the best possible tribute to Bausch, and to adventurous image-making.
Bausch died in 2009, two days before filming was to begin. Wenders folded up his plans, but the members of Bausch’s troupe, among others, persuaded him to rethink the project and forge ahead. The outdoor settings of some of the dance pieces take the viewer to strange places, strange, at least, for dance: an ordinary city sidewalk, or a trolley car, or an open field. Outside in the sun or on a traditional stage, Wenders’ camera brings us into arrestingly intimate proximity with each unison hand gesture or robotic adjustment of a torso, or an arm. Bausch’s work was all about mechanized conformity up against idiosyncratic humanity. Wenders responds intuitively to this theme, and we come to appreciate Bausch’s sense of the world.
Some of Bausch’s better-known works are included in Pina, including "Cafe Muller," pulling on strands of Heiner Muller’s dramatic literature. On camera, but offstage, the members of Bausch’s company speak (often dreamily and vaguely, if lovingly) of the late choreographer’s influence on their lives. The dancers run the gamut in terms of body "types" and age and ethnicity. Their words come to us in the languages of German, English, Russian, Italian, French, Slovenian, Korean, Spanish and Portuguese (with English subtitles).
But the movement matters most, and Wenders’ calm, enraptured camera honors that movement without chopping up Bausch’s rhythms unduly. I’m eager to see Pina again, in 3-D (the Criterion DVD is in 2-D), just as I’m eager to revisit Herzog’s cave in 3-D.