Wim Wenders’s rather stunning Pina (2011) employs the structures of both music performance and documentary films. But the problem is that Wenders ultimately undercuts his film’s ability to function as either form. The film – which you should see in 3D because it probably surpasses Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) for the best use of the technology that I’ve ever seen – is a celluloid monument to German choreographer Pina Bausch, who passed away on the eve of the film’s production.
I knew nothing about Bausch going into the film, and now I know only slightly more coming out of it. Wenders never delves into Bausch’s upbringing, her history, or the cultural significance of her dancing and theater company. Instead, he gives us four extended dance routines that Bausch designed (they seem to be a mixture between extremely physical dancing and surrealist performance art): The Rite of Spring, Café Mueller, Kontakthof, and Vollmond.
Wenders uses these routines to build up slowly his use of 3D throughout the film. During The Rite of Spring, Wenders uses 3D more to capture the depth of the stage and the physical expressions of the dancers than anything else. By the time he’s gone on to progress through some tangential dance numbers, which showcase some of the most stunning use of 3D (like a moonwalk on an escalator, which seems to go out to infinity, and a dance number that takes place in the middle of a busy German intersection as monorails pass overhead), he’s made it all the way to the other end of the spectacle spectrum. During Vollmond the stage is flooded with water, the company kicks and throws the earthly material at one another while the company dances off of a large rock, and you simply don’t want the film to end.
This would have been a fine performance film, as opposed to a documentary, but Wenders undercuts the performances with short anecdotes from the dance company and some short, tangential dance routines that it designed. The anecdotes rarely tell us anything substantial about the choreographer, who seems to be a frustrating teacher because she gives her lessons in the form of riddles, which transform her into something like a German version of Yoda. That said, her methods may be elusive, but their products are dazzling – and I wish that Wenders first and foremost had been faithful to capturing the beautiful, funny dance routines, particularly due to the 3D technology.
Pina has a few other minor structural problems as well. Wenders never titles the dance routines, and after the cutaways and digressions, it’s difficult to account for which one we are watching at the time. He also doesn’t title the interviews with the company’s members, which gives us a mixture of the intimate and the impersonal. Overall, Pina isn’t awful – mainly due to its jaw-dropping 3D effects – but mainly frustrating.