This German 3D film nominated for Best Feature Documentary is about Pina Bausch, the German modern dancer and choreographer. I am neither knowledgeable nor a huge fan of dance of any sort, but the movie came extremely highly recommended, and I was told that I should see it for the use of 3D alone. I think that I would have gotten more out of the film had I known more about Bausch in advance, but the documentary was certainly an interesting and unique viewing experience.
Two days before filming was set to begin, Pina Bausch passed away from cancer (she was diagnosed five days earlier). Director Wim Wenders wanted to cancel filming, but Bausch’s dancers convinced him to make the film regardless. As a result, Bausch herself is largely absent from the film, which becomes more a tribute to Bausch’s artistic aesthetic and pedagogical style told through the eyes of her dancers than a portrayal of Bausch as an individual.
The film itself has three elements that are interwoven throughout. First, there are filmed performances, choreographed by Bausch, in various theaters and stages and featuring and large number of dancers and Bausch’s characteristically dramatic sets. Second were smaller dance numbers performed by one or two dancers in Bausch’s style, choreographed by the dancers themselves and performed often in outdoor or public places. Finally there were talking head statements from the dancers themselves, who discuss their personal experiences dancing for Bausch.
I’ll start with the filmed dance performances, and I’ll attempt to describe the style of dance that I observed through the eyes and vocabulary of an utter novice. The dances are manic and often violent, and a heavy theme of repetition runs throughout. A dancer will forcefully and seemingly painfully fall to the floor and stand back up, only to take one step and fall to the floor again. She will then repeat, over and over and over again. The effect was to elicit a strong and unique emotional response, one characterized by frustration and anxiety, as the dancer rises and falls faster and faster. In one piece titled “Café Müller,” the stage is densely populated with cafe-style tables and chairs, which one dancer must endlessly hurl around the stage in order to clear a path for another dancer. In the dance performance that begins the film, set to “La sacre du printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”) by Igor Stravinsky – a ballet itself notorious for causing a riot amongst its audience during its first performance – the stage is covered in a thick layer of soil, in which tribal bands of dancers proceed to dance, stomp, writhe, and pound their fists, until at the end of the piece they are all covered in mud and sweat. The dance (to my untrained eye) is not beautiful in the traditional sense of the word, but it will make you feel something.
The smaller tribute dance sequences are touch and go. Some are amazing and some are less so, but these are incredibly useful to the viewer simply as a contrast to Bausch’s dances. These tributes, choreographed by talented albeit less experienced members of her company, illustrate the features of Bausch’s style that those closest to her deemed significant. Through these vignettes we get to see her signature style through a more practiced lens, and in addition we are able to even more clearly appreciate Bausch’s undeniable talent, as her dances certainly possess something that is missing in many of these smaller pieces. What is universally noticeable in all of these dances is the incredible beauty of the places that they are performed. From the urban settings of street corners and bus stations to the rural environments of wooded brooks and desert plateaus, each one is breathtaking. (Truth be told, a little distractingly so, as I found myself wondering if the settings were a little too perfect, and were perhaps either entirely constructed in a studio or enhanced with special effects. If you have any insight, please leave it in the comments.)
The interviews with the dancers were nearly as unusual in style as the dance that they were describing. Rather than watching them speak, we hear their words as a voiceover to a video of them simply looking at the camera. This gave the impression of watching an Andy Warhol screen test with a narration. At first I felt that while not necessarily detracting from the film, it did not add anything either, but upon reflection, I think that this style served to maintain a distance between the subject and viewer, as well as maintain a uniform aesthetic throughout. The content of these scenes tends to focus on very small memories of moments with Bausch, and other than a few moments of archival footage of her dancing, these are all we have to construct a picture of her. Never does anyone offer simple biographical information about the subject of the film, as this is emphatically not the point of the movie. I usually like to go into movies cold, but I definitely feel like I would have gotten more out of this particular film had I taken the time to read through Bausch’s Wikipedia entry in advance.
What was indeed visually striking throughout these sequences was the use of 3D, which I want to say was the most successful application of 3D in a live action film that I’ve seen. The trouble with 3D, as has been noted by others before, is that it does not realistically mimic the way in which the human eye sees in three dimensions. As a result, when watching a 3D film, we do not see a convincingly realized depiction of the three dimensional world, but rather a series of leveled planes upon which various action takes place, like you might see in an animated ViewMaster display. This can be downright distracting when watching a traditional film scene, but is ideal for viewing dance. There are many times during these large dances when twenty or thirty dancers are all dancing simultaneously. From a seat in the audience, this would likely be distracting, and the viewer might find it difficult to focus either on a single dancer or the entire company. And in a traditional 2D film of this scene, the dancers would melt into a tangled mess of writhing arms and legs. But in this elegant execution of 3D technology, each dancer magically separates. You can see each individual dancer alone, and see how they interact with every other dancer. The movements are precise, and we get to see every one in stunning detail. The tiniest facial expression is meticulously calculated and rehearsed, and viewers of this movie may be the first audience in the history of Bausch’s company to be able to fully appreciate that.
All in all, I found this film to be more intellectually and creatively stimulating than I found it to be wholly enjoyable, though this is clearly a product of my own inexperience with and lack of passion for dance of any kind, let alone modern dance. To a modern dance aficionado, I doubt they will soon come across a more beautifully or meticulously executed depiction of the art form. If you are already acquainted with Bausch’s work, you will certainly enjoy getting to know her dancers, and if you have already seen her performances in person, I predict you will be blown away by the layers of depth and complexity that Wenders unveils to us here.