The angelic grace, the disembodied voices and mute faces, the tension between witnessing and acting — with Pina, director Wim Wenders completes a trilogy begun with the sublime Wings of Desire and the disappointing Faraway So Close. As in those angels-among-us movies, we follow each player between the poles of stillness and motion and must determine for ourselves the whos and the whys. Language is spare, almost secondary, and music guides more than it comments.
This is all true of Wenders' latest, but Pina is a documentary, shot in 3-D (and nominated for an Academy Award this month). Its namesake subject is choreographer Pina Bausch, whose ensemble, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, the director captures in performances public and private. Bausch died in 2009, less than a week after she was diagnosed with cancer — and not long before production on a version of this movie was to have commenced. In a shift that Bausch likely would have embraced — her communication style, Pina's dancers tell us, was inquisitive, compact and elliptical rather than specific and dictatorial — Wenders reshaped his vision. What might have been a linear arrangement of dances and behind-the-scenes interviews is instead a spectral, kinetic, emotionally vivid elegy.
Sometimes that abandonment of linear presentation grates. Wenders' assemblage operates as a remarkably user-friendly introduction to Bausch, but his is a greatest-hits album of radio edits. The director shot the primary Bausch texts on display — Café Müller, Le sacre du printemps, Vollmond and Kontakthof — in their entirety, then recombined pieces of them (some staged outdoors or in evocative locations — a factory, an aerial tram) into a kind of collage. This emphasizes the repetition that was a Bausch hallmark, but it also weakens its impact. At moments, it looks like her only trick, yet Wenders sometimes cuts as the rhythm is about to envelop us.
In one section of Müller, a man and a woman embrace, still and silent. Another man interrupts the contact and rearranges the couple's limbs until the man must hold the woman awkwardly, in a way that lets her drop fast to the floor. The second man walks away, the hold breaks, and the couple returns to their first pose. The second man appears again and repeats his pruning of the couple's contact, and the couple then repeat their response. The first time, it's funny (is this Improv Everywhere?). Then it's discomfiting (a bad date?). Then there's resignation (uh oh, existential quandary). In Wenders' staging, the camera puts us inside the trio's arm spans, but there's curiously little intimacy. The 3-D isn't arresting here, and the proximity is at odds with Bausch's examination of ritual.
The brutal, sanguinary mechanics of ritual play well in Bausch's Le sacre du printemps. Here, Wenders' camera floats near the dancers without intruding, and the sounds — dirt shifting underfoot, the blood-in-the-ears percussion of Stravinsky's score, the dancers' arrhythmic gasps — add yet another dimension. The movie starts here and occasionally returns, though Wenders seems more intrigued by Bausch's gentler, less expressionist pieces. Down the spectrum from her Rite of Spring is Kontakthof, which translates roughly as "courtyard of contact" and charms by putting dancers of advanced age together with younger movers, all of them fluent in the conversation of mating: primping, teasing, rejecting, reconsidering.
Woven through the performances are simple and almost motionless visits with Bausch's longtime dancers. We hear their voices (and read their words as subtitles when their language isn't English), but their lips remain still, which keeps our attention on the eyes. As each recounts his or her conversations with Bausch, the recollections convey that Bausch asked them more than she told them. Her dances — the ones that Wenders has chosen, anyway — ask more questions than they answer. In Pina, Bausch's inquisitive spirit comes into focus and reaches out from the screen. The visuals are impressive, but this might be the first 3-D movie to aim more for your soul than your eyes.