“…Or how Wenders proved he isn’t Herzog”
By Austin Raywood
Pina (2011) has to be one of the best examples in recent memory of a filmmaker letting down his subject and performers to such a degree that he nearly makes their actions completely irrelevant. Dedicated to the late, great German choreographer Pina Bausch the film drafts her former dance company to perform some of Bausch’s greatest compositions. Bausch’s style was a revolutionary form of classical ballet mixed with modern interpretive and experimental dance. Her ballets often wouldn’t have a plot, but would rather attempt to interpret different humanist emotions and feelings through each piece . This would inevitably lead to compositions that only made sense at a truly metaphoric level; a certain level of surrealism certainly exists within her work as well. If one was so inclined, one could even think of her as the David Lynch of the dance world.
Undoubtedly, the dancing throughout the film is unspeakably beautiful and even occasionally awe-inspiring. For instance, when one of the male dancers perfectly balances several long wooden sticks on his outstretched arms. Or when a young Spanish male dancer in a dress by a river dances in a strong and powerful yet deeply feminine style. The list of amazing performances could go on and on. However Director Wim Wenders lets all of the performers down droll and inept filming choices.
Wenders has to be one of the greatest directors to ever come from Germany, certainly in league with the likes of Murnau and Fassbinder. His films (Wings of Desire of 1987 and The American Friend of 1977) often have ambitious scopes that can only be compared to those of Bergman or Kubrick. He tells highly philosophical tales that often draw on classical literature, religious symbology and, on occasion, even a bit of surrealism. On paper he’s the perfect match for a film about Bausch’s experimental dances, considering his inclinations for what mainstream society often simply terms “the weird”. However, he’s has proven us all wrong. Why? Only because he refused to be Wim Wenders.
As incredible as the dancing may be, it’s always offset by his pathetically film school documentary style camerawork. He even adds a few CG rows of audience seats at the foreground of the screen during some of the theatre sequences, an effect straight out of Windows Movie Maker. Each sequence is treated with almost clinical use of the camera without any form of flourish at all. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find any artistry or technique involved with any of the cinematography. It seems as though he decided to consciously abandon any form of film language whatsoever, obviously in an ill-conceived attempt to not distract from the performances. In taking a step back Wenders, in effect, has eliminated himself from the film turning what could have been an artfully crafted piece of work into something that is little more than a BBC arts showcase. The film also lacks the energy and excitement of dance films like David LaChapelle’s Rize (2005) or Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), although, admittedly the latter was a dramatic film.
Even ignoring the terrible choice to use 3D, which causes you to constantly lose focus on the dancers movements, the only good element to Wenders’s entire production is an occasionally gorgeous location sequence. While at least half the film takes place on an incredibly boring black dance stage, every once and awhile the dancers perform at a rock quarry or a pond or the elevated tramways of Munich. These locations, however, offer only brief respite from the boredom of his cinematography. The final nail in the film’s coffin has to be his inclusion of the dancer’s interviews. When introducing a new member of the company, Wenders places them in a brief close up while they speak in an off-screen narration about the effect Bausch had on them. This often leads to hilariously silly diatribes about her life (of which we are told nothing about by Wenders), which places Pina on a pedestal, and almost attempts to make her out to be the saint of dancers. One quote from such an interview, “I didn’t know how to speak…and then I met Pina…and she taught me how to speak…with my body.” At a time when interest in dance has been reignited in cinema (thanks to Black Swan 2010), this sort of pretentious and elitist drivel is not what is needed, nor asked for. As a filmmaker, Wenders has let down Bausch, let down the dance company and let down his audience. While I’m sure that he’ll continue to make wonderful films in future, as he has in the past, looking back Pina will certainly not be one of them. In short: We’d rather watch Nina than Pina.