Words are the enemy in Wim Wenders’s mysterious, submersive and captivating 3D tribute to German dance pioneer Pina Bausch, who died in 2009 just as Wenders, the director of Buena Vista Social Club and Wings of Desire, was beginning to make this film. One by one, the dancers of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, the company she ran for 36 years, talk of her unwillingness to explain herself in words. ‘Dance for love’, one of her colleagues remembers her saying, recalling it as one of the few instructions he received from Bausch in years of working with her. ‘Go on searching’ and ‘What are we longing for?’ are two other rare comments which the dancers recall her sharing with them.
Wenders takes his cue from Bausch’s Trappist approach to making art. We don’t hear or see him. And while he nearly embraces a talking-head element in his otherwise deeply unconventional film, he pulls back from the actual talking bit: we see Bausch’s colleagues, filmed in close-up for Wenders’s camera, but they are silent and we only hear their words. There’s also little of Bausch apart from a few cleverly inserted snippets of footage of her dancing or sitting, smoking, behind her desk in the rehearsal room.
Where words have real power is in the recalled memories of Bausch we hear from her dancers. From those, we can imagine an intuitive and collaborative artist – a woman whose presence is powerful even in her absence. Mostly, though, Wenders gives us performance. We see extracts from four of Bausch’s pieces, Le Sacre du Printemps, Kontakthof’, Café Muller and Vollmond, performed at the Tanztheater Wuppertal. Helped by a sensitive, uncynical use of 3D technology, these sequences draw us deeply into the work and are as far as possible from any traditional idea of ‘filmed theatre’. Wenders takes his camera on stage so that in a scene from Le Sacre du Printemps the dancers interact with the lens as if the technology is a performer, not an interloper.
We go outside too, into the post-war, rebuilt and sun-dappled mittel-European mundanity of Wuppertal, near Dusseldorf, and it’s here that the film takes on a magical quality as solo dancers or pairs of dancers perform pieces to express their memories of Bausch. One dances on pointe, with raw veal in her shoes, in front of a factory. Another performs on the grass verge of a dual carriageway. A finale sees the entire ensemble perform along the ridge of a quarry.
The beauty of Wenders’s film is that his imagery and gaze on Bausch’s work has the same essential, uncluttered and wryly funny quality as the work itself. Some will come to this film full of knowledge of Bausch. For others, it will be as fresh and novel as Wenders’s approach to turning dance into cinema. Both, I think, will find it entrancing and truly inspiring.