German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire; Paris, Texas; Buena Vista Social Club) has made yet another important contribution to contemporary film. His latest creation, Pina, shot in 3D, is a homage to the life and work of Pina Bausch, who died in 2009.
Bausch (b. 1940) was a German director, choreographer, teacher and performer of modern dance; her ensemble, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, is the centrepiece of Wenders' film. Two of the ensemble's most famous works (both of which are featured in the film) include The Rite of Spring (1975), in which the entire stage is covered with peat, and Café Müller (1978), in which dancers stumble around the stage crashing into tables and chairs.
The Rite of Spring combines Igor Stravinsky's seminal 1913 score with a sequence of thudding, visceral convulsions and a frenzied scene in which some 32 dancers, their bodies sweat-glazed and flecked with peat, perform a sacred pagan ritual in which a young girl, whom the elders have chosen as a sacrificial offering to the God of spring, dances herself to death. A clip of Bausch's production (an earlier version of what we see in the film) is available online, and there's a reason why it's clocked up more than one million views.
Café Müller—surreal, dreamlike, rich in Bauschean Expressionism (some of the characters sleepwalk in and out of a deserted café)—is a lighter affair (or less terrifying), although it's just as compelling to the interested viewer. To decode the piece—or rather to confine the piece to one interpretation—is, I suspect, to miss the point. As Bausch says herself in the film, 'All you can do [as a choreographer] is hint at things'. And hint she certainly does, and powerfully, too. But amidst the action of the scene—which, as Luke Jennings has written in the Guardian, sees a series of characters trapped in an existential tape loop, endlessly reprising their actions and interactions—seeps a subtle, a transcendent, an almost otherworldly beauty as the central sleepwalker traverses the stage in a graceful sway of minimalist dance (set to a series of haunting arias by Henry Purcell) and a loosely draped white nightgown.
Much of the film's focus is, however, away from the theatre and on the city of Wuppertal itself. Be it a park, a public swimming pool or the city's suspension railway, the setting and design of every choreographed scene provides the necessary background without which the performance in the foreground would not be so wonderfully complete. Such blending of figure and ground is indeed what makes the combination of Wenders and Bausch so masterfully apparent, and it is indeed this combination that rewards the attention of the receptive viewer.