The Criterion Collection advertises itself as “a series of important contemporary and classic films.” That is an understatement. It’s more accurate to describe Criterion as a moveable museum, containing films from all over the world, preserved in gorgeous detail, unpacked with creator interviews and essays written by film scholars. The folks at Criterion have gathered a community of like-minded individuals who believe that film is art and should be treated as such.
Wim Wenders’ soaring tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch begins with her physical interpretation of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). The piece involves male and female dancers skipping, pirouetting, and writhing in a field of dirt on a large indoor stage. There is something about their movement which feels completely natural, as if it were not choreographed, and all of their dancing, no matter how fluid and organic, is laced with intensely palpable grief. I suppose the fact that every movement looks so natural is a sign that Pina only worked with the very best modern dancers from around the world. What catches my eye time and again, however, are Pina’s female dancers. It seems quite clear to me that Pina was harder on her female dancers than her male dancers — it is evident as the choreography unfolds before us. For example, in The Rite of Spring, the female dancers appear as if they are violently pounding their own crotches with their flailing fists and in the unsettling piece Cafe Muller a male dancer is silently instructed to hold and then drop a female dancer to the hard wood floor several times over.
Pina herself always appears sad and forlorn in all of the footage from her days as an accomplished choreographer and dancer. Pina, with her frail, pale, skeletal body and her hair in a severe teacher’s bun, floats through every frame of her past with a cigarette in hand, like an anguished ghost attempting to find rest. In this way, Cafe Muller was the perfect choreographed incarnation of Pina’s secret/not-so-secret sorrow. Perhaps Pina was hard on her female dancers because they shared gender. Wenders does not address this.
Pina Bausch was a German choreographer and dancer — a storyteller — who rose to prominence in the 1970’s with the development of her new form of modern dance, Tanztheater. Pina’s dancers do not dance as if they were performing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at a world recital. They are, instead, telling a story with their anguished and manic choreographed movement that is a blend of modern dance and traditional stage blocking. However it is that you choose to describe Pina’s art, whether dance or theatre, it is performed in such a way that it feels almost tragically human and while I am always mesmerized by her dancers and her elaborate stage sets, I am rarely uplifted.
Unlike Terry Zwigoff’s documentary film Crumb or others like it, Wim Wenders’s Pina is not a film about Pina Bausch, her life, her family, etc., but rather it is a film about her work. It is a film made to inspire and confound. Wenders, a friend and fan of Pina’s for several years, insists on asking his audience to interpret Pina’s life story, temperament, and character through what she has created. It feels as if the dancers are embodying Pina’s very emotions and spirit in their performances. The closest we move to actually knowing Pina is when Wenders films the silent, still faces of the dancers sitting and looking away just shy of the camera’s lens. They do not speak to us with their mouths, but they share their experiences of life with Pina in voiceover as they stare into the distance. Wenders takes seriously the fact that Pina felt strongly about using the visual of the human body instead of speaking to communicate feeling and thought. Wenders, by his own admission in the Criterion Supplements, was not a a fan of dance. He was “dragged” to an early performance of Pina’s Cafe Muller, in the ‘70’s, by his then partner. Wenders was reluctant and crotchety about attending the performance until he was moved to tears by Pina’s startling and manically gorgeous choreography and dancers. What was communicated with gestures was powerful enough to draw Wenders and Pina together as dear friends and creative co-conspirators for many years to come.
The original version of Wenders’ film was going to prominently feature Pina. In fact, it was designed as a film about Pina Bausch. However, following her death from lung cancer in 2009, the focus of the film shifted. This resulted in a film for Pina. In the Criterion interviews on the DVD Supplements disc, Wenders says he pushed himself to make the film how Pina would have choreographed her Tanztheater. Pina would begin choreographing a new, original piece of dance by asking her dancers questions and then demanding that they answer her questions through dance and not speech. Following a series of these spontaneous exchanges, Pina would pick the best of the improvised “dance answers” to her questions and piece them together to make fully realized choreography. Wenders made his film by utilizing several of Pina’s most well-known and admired pieces and then, as transitions, he would ask the dancers a question and then insist that they respond by dancing, but, they could only dance a dance that they had danced for Pina before she died. The result is a film of such striking, organic, confounding beauty and insight, that I found myself recovering some sense of hope in humanity again. I am grateful that Wim Wenders took the time to make this film and introduce Pina to the world.
The film opens with Carnations I, one of the only light-hearted pieces Pina choreographed. All of her dancers march in a line with smiles on their faces as they, in sign language, tell us the four seasons over and over again. This piece pops up, randomly, throughout the film. The Rite of Spring I and II blend dirt and struggling, anguished men and women as they writhe and leap and, with their bodies, curse the very day they were born. Cafe Muller I, II, III, IV, V, and VI are probably the most renowned of Pina’s pieces. Wenders does not spare us the tragic undercurrent of Cafe Muller. It was Pina’s most personal piece and, before she died, featured her prominently as lead. It appears to be the most evidently feminist piece in the film, but, I hesitate to use such descriptors with Pina’s work.
I would not wish to insult her memory through assumption. Kontakthof reminded me of an old-timey Pentecostal camp meeting. It captures, however, the erotic hilarity and absurdity that exists in that tension between male and female experience. Wenders saves Pina’s most elaborate and breathtaking work for last. Vollmond (Full Moon) is a piece featuring a large boulder and the simulated glow of moonlight. While the rest of the stage exists in blackness, Pina’s dancers tell a story of awe and wonder with their movement. The close of the piece unfolds as “rain” falls from the rafters and drenches the stage. Much like The Rite of Spring where the dancers roll around in the dirt on stage, Full Moon features dancers who, somehow beautifully and with grace, splash around in the water and make it look like the highest form of art.
Before viewing this film for the first time, I had never heard of Pina Bausch. Now that I have seen Wim Wender’s stunning film, I will never forget her. There is only a small list of films that I can say literally changed my life, but, Pina: A Film for Pina Bausch by Wim Wenders is one of them. The number one reason it impacts me so deeply is that I simply don’t understand or comprehend Pina’s approach, but, I am in love with it and with the world that Pina saw before her death. Wuppertal, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany is where Pina’s intimidating Tanztheater was conceived. When Pablo Aran Gimeno, a young male dancer, first arrived in Wuppertal, he felt lost and swallowed up by his experience. Pina’s wisdom that she chose to share with Gimeno was so simple but deeply indicative of Pina’s worldview. She said to Gimeno, in response to his feeling lost, “Dance for love” and left it that. If there is one thing that I can take away from viewing Pina for the second time, it’s that all we feel called/born to do, we should do for love and for no other reason.
In conclusion, thank you Mr. Wenders, for your dedication to good filmmaking and for your dedication to your sister in storytelling, Pina. And Pina Bausch, we miss you. Thank you for saving those of us who are lost.
Josiah Richard Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @JosiahArmstrong and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.