Pina's Eyes: A Conversation With Wim Wenders

Discredited by its current usage as spectacular entertainment in roller coaster summer blockbusters, 3D technology has only recently explored its potential for cinematic storytelling.  How intriguing that its most effective use to date has been, arguably, in documentaries.  As if to prove Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphic resonances, approximately at the same time that Werner Herzog offered audiences a chance to experience the glistening Chauvet Cave—heretofore off limits—Wim Wenders applied 3D technology to reveal the intimate cadances of dance theater in his evocative and justly-lauded tribute to German choreographer Pina Bausch.  Whether Wenders' Pina and Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams can indeed be squared off as "apples and oranges" (per David Hudson), there is no question that 2011 marks the shift from 3D's adolescence into the first sure signs of maturity.

Hudson has, of course, rounded up the chorus of reviews post-Berlinale, from the New York Film Festival, and on the occasion of Pina's limited theatrical release on the East Coast.  Shortlisted for the Academy Awards®, Pina rolls out across the country in coming weeks.  My thanks to Christine Slaton of San Francisco's Allied-Terry Hines & Associates for arranging time for me to sit down with Wim Wenders in anticipation of Pina's arrival in the Bay Area come late January.


MICHAEL GUILLÉN: Wim, I am enthused to speak with you today regarding your widely-lauded 3D documentary Pina, partly because I knew nothing about Pina Bausch before your film, and feel obligated to thank you for exposing me to her choreography, which will unquestionably influence how I look at dance and movement and theater in years to come.

WIM WENDERS: You were my target audience.

GUILLÉN: I recently read a quote of yours that fascinated me.  You said, "The only true remaining adventure is the creative process."  As someone who spends a lot of time talking to others about their creative processes, your quote felt confirming.  Today, I hope to explore your creative process by focusing on a couple of your auteurial choices in shaping Pina.

First, your documentary is clearly a film for Pina.  My understanding is that, originally, it was going to be a film about her?  You've had to switch approaches?

WENDERS: Yeah.  The film that we had wanted to make before had two different angles.  It had Pina's angle and it had my angle.  My angle for 20 years was to make a film about the way Pina looked at the world; to make a film about her eyes at work.  Pretty much she was looking at things differently than anybody else.  She was able to see things that nobody saw before and she was able to transform what she saw into something that hadn't existed before.  I really wanted to make a film about Pina's eyes.  She knew that and she had agreed to that and that would have meant to see her work, to see her touring with her company, and to see her experience places she didn't know.  We were going to go to South America with her and Southeast Asia.  It was going to be a road movie with her and her dancers.  An important part would have been rehearsals but also what she called "corrections", which happened every day after the performance from the night before.  Pina was always present.  There was not a single performance that she had not seen.  The next day for four or five hours, all morning long, she and her dancers would go through the pieces and do corrections.  Not for aesthetic reasons because somebody moved wrong, but in order to find the truth of every gesture and every movement.  That would have been my angle of the film: Pina's eyes at work.

Pina's own angle on the film for 20 years was, "Wim, let's find the language to preserve my work in a way that does it more justice than what we've done so far."  Pina had recorded a few of her pieces, she had been there herself, but she was disenchanted with what existed on film.  She had created nearly 40 works while we were still talking about making a movie.  The drama, almost tragedy, of dance theater is that it's extremely ephemeral.  It only exists if you perform it.  Pina, having created 40 pieces, had to keep all of them alive and keep performing them and rehearsing them with new actors and playing them because—as soon as she would give up on one of her 40 pieces—it was as if it had never existed, for her.  With dance theater, you cannot write it down and let another company play it.  It's gone if you don't do it.  For Pina, it was a Sisyphean task to keep 40 pieces alive and, at the same time, create a new piece every year.  So Pina's interest was in finding a language to preserve her work so that she wouldn't have to keep performing them all, so as not to lose them.  Pina really wanted and thought the two of us would find a language that could preserve dance, but differently than it had been done.  She didn't know how that would happen, what that language would be, but she trusted that the two of us would find it.  That was her driving force.  She needed to find the language to preserve dance on film.

These two interests of ours were what our collaboration consisted of.  She knew what my interest was and I knew what her driving force was and why she was interested in doing this with me.  It took us 20 years to get to the point where we said, "Now we can do it."  That point was determined by this new technology because, until then, I couldn't tell Pina that I was ready to film her work because I felt that my craft was not good enough to do it essentially different than how it had been done before.  There were three or four TV recordings of some of her work and, basically, I had always had to tell Pina that I could do a little better, but not essentially better and that cameras couldn't do essentially better.  Also, I felt my craft was not really able to help her find the proper language to translate the pieces onto film; but, it also wasn't good enough for me to understand how she looked at the world.  Somehow in translating this into conventional film, too much got lost.  Each time I tried to make it, too much was lost on the way.  What I could put on the screen was always too far a cry away from what we desired.  We only overcame that obstacle four years ago in 2007 when I saw the first 3D films and I told Pina, "I think there is a new language now that will allow us to finally do this that will satisfy your desire for a new language for dance and mine to really be able to observe you and feel that I can do justice to what your eyes do."

GUILLÉN: Would you say that—because of the long time the two of you spent understanding each others' desires—that what you have created with the final product approximates the vision the two of you hoped for?  I ask that because the film comes across elegaic and poetic rather than biographical and—if your goal was to show how Pina's eyes saw the world—that's exactly what you achieved by the evidence of the work, by what she elicited from her dancers and what they reveal of her through their movement.  It's as if her eye inscribed itself on the moving bodies of others.

WENDERS: But we had to find our way there.  It wasn't so obvious.  When Pina died, I thought at first that the film was impossible.  I thought that my hope to film her eyes at work had died along with her.  It was only the dancers who convinced me that the film could still be done and that— even if I couldn't film her eyes anymore—I could still trace the way her eyes worked and the dancers could still show me.  That was our common adventure and that was, of course, a very very different film from the one that we would have done before; but, maybe—in a complicated way in the end—it has turned out to be the film that we wanted to do in the beginning.

GUILLÉN: I liked how you said in one interview that Pina's look "was still on everything."

WENDERS: Yeah.

GUILLÉN: Which leads me to consider that not only does your film achieve her desire to archive her pieces but the film also addresses this idea of how memory is inscribed upon movement.  Movement evokes and conjures the emotions of memory.  I'm aware that you personally had a significant response to her work when you first saw it.  What is it about movement, do you think, that can contain or trigger memories and emotional responses?

WENDERS: It is the simple fact that it is a language.  That is something that we keep forgetting.  Even in the history of dance films, it's not obvious that it is a language that can be understood without words and that can tell stories that can reveal psychology, that can reveal identity, and that can reveal who we are and what we are here for.  Dance can actually do all of that.  It can do that if you take it seriously as a language, which is what Pina did.  That was the revolution of her work: she took dance—not as an aesthetic experience—but as a different way to read who we are, and to pass that on.

The shock that I had when I first saw Café Müller—which was the first piece I saw of her's—was that at the end of this piece that was only 40 minutes long, I realized this unknown woman had shown me more about men and women than the entire history of cinema.  That, for me, was completely mindblowing.  I understood immediately that I had met something very big and unknown to me and I wanted to know how she was able to show me more about men and women without a story, without a plot, without dialogue, and more than movies that have all those things, that have psychology and biography and plot.  Still, I felt that I had seen in Café Müller more about the attraction between men and women, more about rejection, more about loss and love, more about all of these things than ever before.  And because she used a language that was able to record all these, even without writing it down and even without being able to put it into words, it was there, it was a language.  That, for me, was the miracle of Pina's work.  That's why I wanted to make a film about her, to understand how she did that.

GUILLÉN: The validity of her language is confirmed by the bodies of her dancers as text.  Further, these were not bodies that I would ordinarily associate with dance.  Most dance companies I've seen have capitalized upon young and athletic bodies and have rarely explored seasoned bodies that have been shaped by a choreographer's touch over a long period of time.  Watching these dancers so familiar with her guidance, you really get the sense—as you say—that her eye is still on them.  What they were is who she had pulled out of them.

WENDERS: Exactly.

GUILLÉN: And that who they were was, in effect, like holding a mirror up to Pina.  I stress that because there are some critical detractors who complain that the documentary should have included more biographical detail so that audiences could gain a sense of the person behind the artist.  Do you feel that?  Do you feel the documentary suffered from a lack of footage of her at work?  You were actually quite spare in what you presented.

WENDERS: Well, in the film we would have done together, there would have been even less biography.  Pina would have resisted.  In the effort to reveal where this creativity was coming from, what had brought her to invent this language, or why she became a choreographer, Pina would have resisted any of these efforts.  If we had established two ground rules from the beginning, they were 1) no biography and 2) no interviews.  That was the common ground we had.  We understood that we didn't want those things.

When I decided to go ahead and make the film without Pina, it was of paramount importance to stick to these two rules and, of course—now that Pina was no longer with us—I had to bring in a little bit of biography because it was necessary to say a little bit about who she was in order to talk about someone who was no longer with us.  The film we would have done together would not have used a single element of archival footage.  But once she was dead, and once I made the film together with the dancers about and for Pina, I had to then look at the archive and see what existed, knowing that I could use only 0.1% of it.  Of course I saw a lot of footage that would have allowed for a biographical film but we had to refrain from using it because it would have been against our ground rules and it would have betrayed a little bit what she expected.  She had expected the film to be about the work.

GUILLÉN: Having set that ground rule of no interviews, can you speak to your creative decision to reconfigure that ground rule for the dancers?  You allowed them to reminisce in voiceover but focused visually on their countenance.  What went into that decision?

WENDERS: We never shot any interviews with the dancers, even though we intended to.  For about a year in the editing room, or even longer than that—we edited for nearly a year and a half—for about the entire time we edited the film, it was a film without any words.  There were no interviews and no verbal language and it was only in the last leg of the editing that I realized the film was a little bit too cryptic and that—even if we didn't want to go into biography—people needed to know a little bit more about the process of the work and about who Pina was.  Especially since I wanted to make this film for people, like yourself, who didn't know about her work.  I did not want to make a film for dance aficionados at all.  I wanted to make the film for people who had no idea who Pina was and present to them this fabulous option of life and in the arts, of this work that most of us had not known.

At the end of the editing, I realized I was too cryptic in my desire to make a film without any words at all and I remembered that—when the dancers and I were developing the film—I had spent some time with each and every one of them and we had long conversations about their relationship with Pina and how they had started and how they found out about the way Pina worked and how they had each adapted to it.  But these were not real interviews, they were just conversations recorded on a little digital recorder like yours, which would have been impossible to use in the film.  The recordings were just a digitized record for myself to understand everybody's biography a little bit better.  I remembered these talks and I listened to them and I realized that in all of them there were little pieces that were not interpreting or explaining the way Pina worked but were just out of their experience of interacting with her.  These little pieces threw light on who Pina was but without explaining it.  I used some of these little excerpts over their portraits.

We shot these "silent" portraits because originally I was going to use them without language, just presenting themselves as who they are, as if they were sitting for a painter.  I had these portraits and they were in the cut without language but then I started to use these little excerpts of my conversations with the dancers about Pina and I realized it was good for the film to have some of these...more like interior voices, as if you could listen to their thoughts.  I picked pieces of what everybody had said, played them back to them, and then re-recorded them in their own voices but as thoughts.  That's how these pieces got into the film at the very last phase of the editing in the final few weeks.

GUILLÉN: You've just mentioned something that is of longstanding interest to me.  I'm intrigued by the melding of artistic mediums, much like what you've done here in Pina with dance theater and film.  You said you had the dancers sitting there as if they were posing for a painter.  I'm aware that in the 60s you actually were a painter and an engraver before you got into filmmaking.  Did your experience as a painter influence your filmmaking and, if so, how?

WENDERS: I can safely say that I learned more from painting than from the history of cinema or the history of photography.  I learned everything about framing from painting and framing is so essential in filmmaking.  It's really our main tool.  What you frame in each and every shot is what tells the story.  Everything you keep out of the frame is going to be forever out and never be a part of the story.  Framing is the main influence the filmmaker has on how he is telling the story and I learned everything I know about framing from painters, from Vermeer and Rembrandt down to Edward Hopper.  I recognized their framing in movies when I started to become interested in movies.  I recognized that Anthony Mann and John Ford must have seen enough of Dutch landscapes in order to make their shots.  As you said, I never wanted to be a filmmaker.  I wanted to be a painter.  I am, in effect, a failed painter making movies as an extension of the painting.  When I started to make my first short films, that was at the time that these American painters like Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol and Michael Snow also started making 16mm movies and I thought that was a logical continuation of painting.  The painterly approach was my first approach to filmmaking.  My first movies were landscapes, cityscapes with nothing happening and—if the frame wasn't moving—they were...paintings.  I still like to paint.  I do watercolors.  If I look at my movies I can tell you in each and every frame where it was coming from and how Vermeer had his hand in there.

GUILLÉN: I truly wish we had time to pursue that conversation in detail, but I need to press on with my final question here.  Speaking of landscapes, I would say the most effective use of the 3D technology in Pina was your shift from the staged screen to your ventures out into the world, placing the dancers in exterior landscapes and cityscapes.  I presume this was a creative decision you and Pina had discussed over the years on how to adapt her pieces offstage?

WENDERS: No, no.  The scenes we shot of the dancers in the city and in the industrial landscapes is stuff that I developed together with the dancers in order to make up for the absence of Pina.  These pieces are all the dancers' answers to my questions about Pina.  The rule of the game was that the answers had to be wordless, which was Pina's own method of working with her dancers and how she developed her own pieces.  Each and every one of the dancers showed me two or three answers to my questions about Pina.  We did this through the rehearsal phase and I then had a hundred answers, so that the overall image of all these answers was reflecting Pina as good as possible.  Then we went out into the world to shoot these answers because there was no stage for any of these pieces.  We had developed them in rehearsal and a black stage would have been absolutely boring.  Even for the body of the dancing to be present, it needs to be in space somewhere, not in emptiness.

So I started thinking about taking all these answers into real life, into the city that Pina had worked in for 40 years, and that was an exciting process because that allowed my 3D cameras to be with the dancers in a very different way.  On stage, we always respected the direction that Pina had imposed.  Her choreographies were all made to be seen by an audience so they were all directed to the audience and so—when we filmed them—we respected that....

GUILLÉN: You were respectful of the staged grid?

WENDERS: The staged grid, exactly.  But then when we developed all these answers from each and every one of these 36 dancers and I knew what they were going to show in the choreography of their answers, then I could place them into the outside world.  I found a place for each and every one of these answers and each was different.  I tried to find a specific place for each and every one of them that would bring out the answer in the best possible way.  Then I could, for the first time, choreograph my cameras.  On stage when we were shooting the pieces, the function of the camera was always to be in the best possible angle to represent Pina's choreography, to present it spatially in the best possible way, but when we were outside in the world in traffic and in nature, I could move around and my camera was actually able to show 360° and dance along with the dancers.  That was very different work and, actually, would not have been possible even a year before.  We shot over the period of one year and we started shooting these pieces at that time 3D technology was so heavy and rigid.  We could maneuver the camera on stage but it wasn't quite mobile yet.  A year later we were able to put the cameras on Steadicam and free them up in a different way and in a way that was being done for the very first time.  Before then, nobody had ever taken 3D cameras on a Steadicam into the world.  We could dance with the dancers

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