Released on Friday, Pina by Wim Wenders is far and away the best film I’ve seen this week – and bear in mind I have also seen the remake of Arthur and The Fast & The Furious 5. It isn’t really very fair to compare it with the other films as it sits apart. It’s a sort of documentary-cum-memorial to the radical German choreographer Pina Bausch by her friend Wenders. They were collaborating on the project – which is ultimately a presentation of four of her dance pieces on film – but she died of cancer in 2009. He saw it through to fruition as a tribute. And a tribute it certainly is. I’m a latecomer to the pleasures of seeing dance performed live, as regular readers will know, but I’ve been thrilled by some of the ballet and modern dance I’ve witnessed over the last couple of years, from the Royal Ballet to Michael Clark, and, judging by the physicality and originality on display in Pina, I’d love to see it live. There’s something sanitising and distancing about seeing it on film. And if that’s sounds elitist, it’s meant only as an objective observation. I’ve seen two theatre plays, live, but in a cinema, in the past six months, and I found both to be compelling and worthwhile – and indeed, some of the camera work and close-ups made the experience more cinematic than theatrical. Make of that what you will. This film makes something physical almost metaphysical, if you’ll excuse the pretence. (I am in arthouse mode.)
The film is in 3D. It’s being sold as the first 3D arthouse movie, but who cares about firsts? Does it enhance the experience of watching modern dance being danced in front of your eyes? Yes it does. For once, the 3D is justified. It’s not a gimmick. Wenders hasn’t necessarily staged bits purely to show the technique off. What he’s done is apply the technique to what’s unfolding in front of him, and used it to clarify the picture, and exaggerate the depth of field. Much of the performance is done on a darkened stage in Wuppertal, in the Ruhr region, where Bausch’s dance company have always been based. She is, or was, I have learned, an elemental choreographer; thus, we see a bare stage on which a shallow river is formed by cascading rain, which runs under a huge rock; in another sequence, the dancers move across a stage entirely carpeted in reddish peat soil, making footprints, clawing into it, and getting all mucky in the process as the dirt mingles with their sweat. This is amazing to watch, even in 2D I should imagine, but the 3D sharpens it all up.
Wenders’ best trick is to relocate some of the routines to the outdoors; that is, a quarry, a river, the central reservation in a traffic intersection in Wuppertal, or inside the carriage of one of the town’s iconic monorail trains (previously seen in black and white in Wenders’ lovely 1974 road movie Alice In The Cities). The colours are beautiful outside, and the dancers seem both out of place in their finery, but also, surreally, part of the landscape. There’s a short sequence where a male dancer jigs about in a precinct while a small dog tries excitedly to bite his legs. It’s just one of many arresting visual moments in a film that’s full of juxtaposition and gags. There’s an astonishing sequence in a river with an artificial hippo that also has to be seen to be believed.
The dancing is very sexualised, especially when two groups, one male, one female, interract across the field of dirt. I loved the long procession, featuring the entire company, all repeating the same seasonal hand gestures as they walk in time, which is pictured above. It’s simple but hypnotic and dazzling. If there’s one problem with the film, it’s the decision to allow the individual dancers to pay tribute to their beloved, inspiring, saint-like Pina by gushing about her to camera. These might have been fine in a South Bank Show, but they interrupt the flow of the film. And it’s a film all about flow. We should be left to interpret and assess Bausch’s ingenuity and invention on our own, without prompting.
It’s showing at the Curzon in London, in 3D, and if it’s anywhere near you, have a look, even if you think that 103 minutes of modern dance is not your thing. Even though seeing it on a screen rather than on a stage makes it a substitute for the real thing, thanks to Wenders’ eye, much of it is utterly cinematic. The other brilliant thing about Bausch’s company is that they span all ages, it’s not just about lithe, borderline-anorexic, tight-buttocked young things as are most ballets, this is about a full picture of life.