Wim Wenders has been making movies for over thirty years, and with his latest film, Pina, the legendary German artist has kept his own tradition of making deeply personal and moving work alive. Pina, a 3D documentary of sorts, pays tribute to the life of Wenders’ close friend Pina Bausch, an accomplished German choreographer—and the artistic head of the Tanztheater Wuppertal—who passed away during the film’s making. Made up of reincarnations of her work, archival footage, and interviews, the film takes the choreography from the stage and places it everywhere from a busy city intersection to a glass room in the depths of the woods. Pina immortalizes the work of a rare genius while solidifying Wim as one of the most prolific filmmakers of our generation. We met up with Wim at the Dream Hotel to explore his fascination with Pina, as well as the aftermath of her death and his obsession with transient worlds.
When did you relationship with Pina begin?
A Quarter of a century ago. I got my first dose of Pina Bausch against my will. I wasn’t into dance; I had seen dance—classical and modern—and decided it was not for me. We were was in Venice, and my girlfriend saw these posters all over the city—a retrospective of the Pina Bausch Company. She said we had to go there and I said no! I had much better plans for a night out in Venice than go see dance, but of course I caved in and it changed my life.
What attracted you to her so much?
I didn’t really know what was happening to me at the time; it took me a while to understand. I found myself weeping uncontrollably, sitting on the edge of my chair and really being completely in the grip of what was happening on stage, and it really concerned me. For someone who knew as little as I did, I did not know what was happening to me—I just knew it was big and it was essential, and I had just been introduced to something beautiful. And we stayed for six days and saw every piece in the retrospective, and each piece confirmed anew that this woman was doing something unbelievable and something that was going to change my life.
And did you know you wanted to make a film?
I met her on my third day in Venice. We had coffee together and we talked—well , I talked; she didn’t say much. She was very friendly and smiled at me and lit one cigarette after another and listened to what I had to say. So I said we should do a film together, and she smiled and didn’t say a thing. When we met again a year later, she said, “You mentioned a film we could do together? It’s a good idea.” And from then on she was pushing for it. The more seriously we wanted to do it the more desperately I realized I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to do justice to dance—especially Pina’s kind of dance. I was always trying to pierce through an invisible wall and my cameras couldn’t crack that wall—the physicality of it, the corporality, and the contagious energy.
When you see something on the stage you have this amazing reaction because it’s live and it’s right in front of you—how did you try and capture that when you had to do it on film?
I had never even thought that I’d wait and shoot it in 3D but all of a sudden it was there and it seemed obvious that 3D was meant to film dance, and dance was meant to be filmed in 3D. I was no longer on the outside looking in; I was in the middle. It was a different way to deal with presence. If you’re in a live performance, the dancers are present, in the space that the stage opens up in front of you, that presence is the core of the whole thing. At any given moment something can go wrong, at any given moment something can be better than ever before and it is the life presence that makes it so contagious and overwhelming. On film you can repeat it a hundred times so it’s never that existential.
The film was completed after Pina had passed away, so it was a dedication and a celebration. Was it cathartic for you when it was finally completed?
The cathartic thing was the making of the film. For the dancers, the fact that Pina had died from one day to another was a real disaster because some of them had worked with Pina for 30 years. She was the center of their lives. And even the young ones who had worked with her for only one year—it was even more shattering because they had just gotten a little taste of the work and then it was over without any chance to say goodbye or sum it up or say thank you. All of a sudden Pina was gone, and for them it was a giant hole in their lives. And just performing the pieces was not enough to fill that hole. Making a film for Pina instead of with Pina seemed like an important way for all of us, for the dancers even more so than me, to fill that loss and deal with the hole in their lives.
Did you ever think you wanted to stop filming after she died?
I pulled the plug the next day. I completely abandoned it, and the fact that the movie now still exists is because the dancers not only continued to perform, in tears the first days after Pina’s death, but they started to rehearse the pieces Pina had put on the agenda for the film. I realized not filming was the wrong decision, and maybe this was the very last time these pieces were ever going to be performed. It was going to be as important for the dancers and for me as an homage to Pina. It was even more important for the living than the dead.
There’s that line in the film that says, “What are we longing for? Where does all this yearning come from?” I feel like that’s a central theme in so much of your work and this was a way to physicalize this deep longing.
That was something that maybe tied us together, Pina and me. When I saw her pieces for the first time I realized we had a subject in common, as well. Many of my films were trying to deal with the same issues in different ways but certainly not in the same way she was able to do it without words and without story. There was never a story; in some of her pieces there is a red line going through, but it’s not a plot; in movies you always have a story to carry you, and I realized that maybe stories are in the way sometimes of getting to the core of things. The way Pina gets to the core of what love and loss means in her piece, Cafe Muller, I just don’t know a single film that has been able to come remotely close to that. In forty minutes Pina showed me more about men and women than the history of cinema without a single word.
It seems like the idea of motion is always represented in your work, and you have this deep connection to transient places like motels and hotels. Why do you think that is?
I can only guess, but I sometimes think—and that would be something that also applies to Pina—being born into a country and into a life where everything was transient. Germany, after the war, the city I grew up in was 80 percent destroyed. The world I knew was destruction. So you take for granted that that’s what the world looks like, you don’t know anything else. And Pina was born a few years before the end of the war, and being in this post-war Germany and growing up in this wasteland was decisive for both of us, and it might explain where that longing comes from. Also, this feeling for no man’s land and empty places.
You have such an attraction to the American West, which is so beautiful and has so much history but still so bare.
I saw America in pictures and movies, and it was sort of a utopian place compared to where I lived. All I ever wanted was getting there. American music was the opposite of everything I heard in my own country, and there was rhythm and fun—the notion of fun was completely strange to me. Everything I really liked was from this mythical place called America. And Pina, when she was 22 years old, didn’t speak a word of English but took a boat to New York and started to dance. She did not know a person, she did not know a word, she just wanted out. And I think her New York years completely informed her as well.