“Audiences want truth as opposed to reality” – Wim Wenders on life, work and the meaning of both.
Wim Wenders’ Pina is as simple, artful and perfect as a dance movie can be – and watching it with 3D glasses on the big screen, it’s tempting to think that this is exactly why Stereoscopic 3D was invented. Wenders himself now says that he won’t go back to 2D filmmaking, but the director and photographer, whose career-defining films such as Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas are decades behind him, seems now to have a new lease on his art.
Pina is about the choreographic work and company created by Pina Bausch in Wuppertal, an industrial town largely left behind in postwar Germany, where she ran her company of 36 dancers for almost 40 years.
Bausch, who was a longtime friend of the director, died suddenly in 2009, leaving behind a body of work and a company of dancers that have continued to thrive. For the documentary, which Wenders had originally planned to make as a collaboration with Bausch, he shoots pieces on stage and in the studio as well as in the city at large. Bausch’s dancers perform her works at a traffic intersection, in a city park, and high on a hill of slag and byproduct from a nearby iron mine.
The result is a film that is both stark and rich, formal and emotional, and among Wenders’ best.
I sat down with him on the first day of the Toronto International Film Festival, in early September of this year. Today (Wednesday, Oct. 12) Wenders will be in Montreal for the premiere of Pina at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema, where he will also give a press conference.
Rover This film was a project that was years, maybe decades, from idea to fruition. And there is so much inherent joy in it. Was it the most fun you’ve had making a movie?
Wim Wenders We had a blast. Pina wanted us to have a blast. She wasn’t prone to droopiness. Some of the hardest times in her life she did some of her most beautiful work.
Rover It seems your film speaks to exactly that question: What is work for? Pina was busy throughout her career, never taking a hiatus, and you seem to be at a crucial juncture in your filmography as well – you’ve said you’re tired of fiction feature filmmaking, and tired of 2D. Is the question of work – why keep working, what is work for – at the forefront of your mind?
WW Yes, it is. Ideally, work helps you overcome all the bad stuff. Pina knew that. Her work is all about that.
Rover There’s a line in the film where one of her dancers says, “I wanted to know why she was always working, why she wanted to always be working” …and I feel like the film also answers that question somehow. Her pieces, seen as a body of work as they are in your film, seem to encompass all possible human emotions and human experiences. It’s as if whatever the question is, the answer can always be found by working. And, of course, it’s about persevering, about continuing to work at any price, and not stopping.
WW Pina did invent something that didn’t exist before, that a lot of artists picked up on, and that turned out to be very useful. In order to accomplish her dream, she put together a company in a most unlikely place – Wuppertal – and then assembled her company, this miniature humanity, around her. They are from all over the place, and small, and tall, and thin, and big and too old and too young. She had this company of 36 dancers for almost 40 years and it was a huge responsibility on her shoulders; it was a big company for one frail woman to maintain all on her own. And she knew she had to keep working in order to have that luxury of people around her all the time.
Rover You call her frail, and people mention her smallness a lot when they talk about her…
WW Yes, she was not that short, but she was skinny as hell.
Rover You and she were born in pretty much the same place, near Wuppertal.
WW Yes, we were born about 20 km apart, except Pina was born a couple years earlier. We spoke the same dialect; we went through the same sort of childhood.
Rover In what sense?
WW We went through the same postwar bourgeois German upbringing: middle-class, poor, in a country without a past – we had to completely reinvent the future for ourselves. Pina did that in dance and I did that in movies. And when we found out about each other we really liked each other. Pina was for me the older sister I never had, and I think that was mutual.
Rover There’s something in this film that reminds me of the trapeze theme in Wings of Desire, which was the first film I saw of yours, in an art house in Paris when I was 15 years old. It was a great film to see then, when I was just becoming aware of movies. Somehow, the way I felt when I was watching Pina reminded me of that first experience of your work. The film both raises and answers questions about work over the span of a lifetime – about how in a lifetime of creation, the work you did before relates to the work you do now, and the work you’ll do in the future. The way you filmed the pieces, it seemed as though you’re trying to make the experience as pure as possible, with little conceptual space between you, the camera and the dancers. Is Pina a meditation on what’s pure in art? Or am I overthinking it?
WW No, you are on the right track when you mention Wings of Desire. I met Pina in 1985, when [the late] Solveig Dommartin was my girlfriend. She who dragged me reluctantly to see the first performance of Pina’s company – I really did not want to go. Two years later, Solveig and I made a film called Wings of Desire. I had absorbed everything Pina had done before then, and this film Wings of Desire owes everything to Pina. Without her, I never would have had the liberty to make that film, or the freedom to imagine it.
Rover For you, what was the significance of finding locations in Wuppertal, in this city so close to where you grew up?
WW The area is very familiar to me. I grew up right next to it. And the little city of Wuppertal is where I made my most important early film, in 1973, the year Pina took over the Wuppertal opera, even though we never met then. I needed to find a place for each dancer to perform each dance, all within the same area. I wanted places that would envelop them, bring the best out of each of them, and I wanted the camera to see this familiar area of industrial Wuppertal with new eyes. It’s such a lost place, like so many industrial areas in Germany, which really went downhill in the ’50s and ’60s, and finally the ’70s. Their entire steel and coal industries are gone, and the chemical industries as well. In the 19th century, Wuppertal was a rich city. Aspirin was invented there. There were a lot of inventions and patents that stem from Wuppertal, more than any other area in Germany or even Europe, I’ve been told. And now it’s a depressed city. The only luxury of Wuppertal is that for almost 40 years, it entertained Pina Bausch’s dance company… She could not have done that work in Paris, London, New York – she couldn’t have concentrated to do the work in the big city. Wuppertal left her alone; every year she performed for two weeks, and for the rest the city housed the company and let them live in peace.
Rover And people from all over the world chose her, and chose to live in the margins of the art world to be with her there.
WW Dominique Merci, the oldest dancer, is now the artistic director. He had met Pina in Arizona, in the desert, at a dance festival. And Pina told him she was starting a dance company and she wanted him to be in it. He arrived in a car from Paris to Wuppertal, arrived in front of the theatre and left the engine running because he was sure he was going to turn around. “She lured me into this godforsaken place,” he thought. “I’m going straight back to Paris – who can live here, who can work here?” But he did stay, for over 40 years, and now he is the director of the thing.
Rover So sometimes the center of the art world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…
WW Definitely not. After a trip to [New York or Paris], sometimes I’m happy to leave, happy to go back to where I can breathe. Amazing things happen in not the center of the world. I found all my locations for Pina in Wuppertal, and these are locations that are not typical German landscapes, that are more desert-like moonscapes. Forty kilometres out from town, the highest point in the district is atop a mountain of slag. There is a quarry, but there is also this little lake, in the middle of this desert-like moonscape. The highest mountain in the region is a completely artificial mountain, a 200-metre high pile of leftovers of coal. Nothing can grow out there, it’s just a desert. But I filmed the dancers there. It’s great to take the camera off the stage. Of course 3D cameras like infinity, they like the horizon, so it’s nice to bring them out and let them show their stuff. It was like they could finally breathe too.
Rover I keep coming back to the same point, because I’m fascinated by how this refers to your past work. It seems really pure – there’s a lot of joy in watching these dancers perform, and when you shot them you weren’t thinking about narrative, or any of the contrivances of making a non-documentary feature film. Is this coincidence, or is it because you wanted to concentrate on what’s fundamental?
WW For some time I’ve actually been much more drawn to reality-based films. The realm of fiction for an indie auteur has become so difficult, a whole lot of great narrative movies, first movies by young directors, that nobody sees their stuff. The possibilities for fiction have shrunk drastically. These big-budget fantasy movies on other hand are taking over like weeds; so much money goes into making fantasy look realistic. Documentary seems to be a field where so much more invention can take place today, and they’re more appreciated than before, maybe as a counter-reaction to the overwhelming onslaught of fantasy. Documentaries in our time have found a needy audience who want truth as opposed to realism.
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