Acclaimed German director Wim Wenders directs the first 3D art-house film, Pina, that pays homage and tribute to a recently deceased Ballet choreographer, the legendary Pina Bausch, who died two days prior to the initial shooting of the film. Despite Wim Wender’s apprehension and sadness over the loss of Pina Bausch, the Tanztheater Wuppertal theater dancers who performed in Pina’s Ballet routines convinced him to continue with the documentary. It is not surprising why the dancers made this decision, as Pina’s repeated mantra stated in the film is “Dance, dance…otherwise we are lost.” Had the documentary not continued, Pina’s message would have been for naught. The dancers that pay tribute dance not just to express themselves but also to keep a part of Pina alive in every free-flowing movement that she taught them. Instead of being an exposition of her famous ballet routines, the film becomes a kind of eulogy for Pina and the legacy she left behind that touched so many of her dancers, who were able to release themselves from the inner turmoil in their own lives and be free through dance. The problem with this film does not lie in Pina’s dance routines in and of themselves. The real problem with the film is Wender’s direction that relies on an exhibitionist style that makes us long for Pina and not continuous dance numbers where the students become the focus instead of the legend herself.
This may be one of the few films I am aware of that does not utilize 3D to simply cash in. The way the technology magnifies the dancers bodies as if they are deities or Gods really enlightens us on the divine power of Pina’s dance legacy. Unfortunately, the outdoor scenes, which go outside of Pina’s normal routine protocol of only performing on stage, are the weakest scenes/dance numbers in the film. I understand the intention of the outdoor dance numbers in showing the ability to freely express yourself through dance even if you are in a train or a street corner, but the sequences lack the visual splendor of fantasy and beauty that the stage performances contain. Also unfortunate is the greatest dance number of the entire movie happens right at the very beginning. While this is also true for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, it kind of makes you feel let down as the subsequent Ballet numbers after the initial one fail to match its grandiosity of suspense, vividly expressed emotion, and sense of scale that the stage provides. It is one of the most magnificent dance choreographed routines I have had the pleasure of watching on film. Without giving away too much, the scene’s use of sand, brushed onto the stage, as a metaphor for a bleak and desolate world is simply genius. The way the camera utilizes the wide lens gives a great depth of field as well as a sense of scale to the entire routine. The synchronization is also impeccable by both male and female dancers, and their battle of the sexes war on the desert-like sand is a feast for the eyes. That is why it is so disheartening that the rest of numbers following the intro pale in comparison, hence the feeling of exhaustion and slight boredom after the final number is performed. I would have either made the intro routine the closing number (there is no continuity between ballet performances) or placed a routine by Pina somewhere in the documentary that either matched or exceeded it. As I said, the film spirals down from there.
I find it difficult to believe there is so little archival footage of Pina throughout the film. Yes, Pina does keep reminding us that dance instead of words are the ultimate expression of the self, but Wender’s usage of showing rather than telling about Pina is ironically problematic. Each student of Pina’s has their own number they perform that is their favorite of hers which touched each of them in their individual lives that is inter-cut with a close-up head shot take, making it impossible to forget the dancers’ faces moving forward. It is obvious the dancers love and respect Pina as someone who freed them from their introverted selves — one dancer even says Pina’s cure for shyness was to “be crazy” — but again its disconcerting to know I have a greater sense of the lives of Pina’s individual students than I do her own. Where did Pina come from? How did she come to love dance? These questions are not answered, simply that Pina’s definitive self is revealed through her numbers that the Ballet troupe performed as extensions of Pina’s creative essence. That’s all well and good from a unique documentary perspective in getting to understand an individual, but it does not make for a compelling character study when there is still so much about Pina that remains a mystery to audiences, like myself, who do not know anything about her, or likely ever will.
This film does succeed in giving us an understanding of Pina’s legacy and her contribution to the philosophy that dance is the purest form of human expression, but the documentary itself is no great film. It is a bold move by Wenders to be so uncompromising with his delivery of the story of Pina by completely eradicating a linear documentary-style narrative through the use of exhibiting Pina’s Ballet numbers to explicate her biography. Had it succeeded, I would be praising the film, but Wenders’s construction of the narrative makes it nearly impossible for non-dance enthusiasts to really become enraptured by Pina’s routines and her vision of dance’s power. You know the movies where you do not have to appreciate the sport or subject matter to enjoy it? Well, this documentary is not one of those films. Wenders does not let an audience, foreign to dance, in for very long. Yes, there are moments where everyone who is straight, gay, bisexual, or even into animals (I am not joking — watch out for the Hippo scene) can attach themselves to the expressed emotions of Pina’s dance routines, but the enjoyment is limited to mere minutes, not something that non-dance enthusiasts can be emotionally sustained for almost two hours. Again, Wenders went for a bold direction in presenting this documentary, and even though it feels very similar to something you would see out of an experimental 1970s film, the consequences are that the unlimited enjoyment and beauty of this film Wenders longs for can only be accessible to the most die-hard of modern dance devotees. Bottom line: if you hope to see a great ballet show, you are in for a real treat, but if you are going to see a great film, you may find yourself very disappointed and grasping for some semblance of connectivity to make sense of the whole documentary. For someone who is the title character of the film, we really learn quite little about Pina herself. We see the wonder and beauty Pina can do, but we are at a loss as to the reasons that make her do the things she does. Had that been covered, this might have been a greater film.