Wim Wenders has stepped into the third dimension with his latest film Pina, a first in the European Art Cinema.

“It’s hard to really say it’s a full-on documentary,” says legendary German director Wim Wenders about his latest, 3D extravaganza Pina. And it’s true, though Wenders is well known for his incisive, technically innovative documentaries, including Tokyo Ga (a film that’s sort-of about Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, but really about flashing pachinko machines) and the Academy Award-nominated Buena Vista Social Club, Pina is a far cry from his previous work in this, or any genre.

Celebrating the innovative creations of the late Pina Bausch, a pioneering choreographer who, via her emotive, cathartic plays, invented the concept of Tanztheater, Pina is part performance movie, part elegy and – thanks to its mindblowing use of the third dimension – part fairground ride. It centers around four live recordings of Bausch’s work, performed by her dance company and filmed with an elaborate crane apparatus that takes the viewer within inches of the panting, sweating and wildly thrashing performers.

The 3D is beautiful – perhaps the most sophisticated, subtle, and immersive use of this emerging technology that has ever been accomplished. But the film’s history is a troubled one. Wenders and Bausch, who first met in 1985, had been talking about making a film together ever since, with little progress made because of Wenders’ concern that traditional cinema could hardly do justice to the sheer power of Bausch’s work. “Anybody I ever took to see a play of Pina’s – even tough guys who said, ‘Oh, dance is not for me, you’re out of your mind’ – they sat next to me and they started weeping because they could not believe that Pina’s work could concern them that much,” he says, abstractedly sipping tea at London’s Cavendish Hotel. It was only when Wenders encountered this decade’s obsession – 3D cinema – via U2’s U2-3D film at Cannes Film Festival in 2007, that he thought “that maybe that would put me in a position to participate more. Let people participate in a different way.” “That’s when we really started to prepare,” he says, “when we decided we would do it with this unknown technology.”

By 2009, Wenders was set to film the first few 3D test shots with Bausch. But then, completely without warning, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and died five days later. “For me, the movie was over,” says Wenders. “It was only weeks later that it dawned on us that it really was wrong not to do it. The dancers had given us an example – they had even danced the night that she died. They performed crying their hearts out, saying Pina had taught them, in spite of everything, to dance.”

So Wenders embarked on a new, unknown film. “Even the concept that Pina and I had put together was quite an elaborate one,” he says. “Then that concept was down the drain and it was really flying with no instruments.” What he ended up with, after months of struggling with his massive 3D cameras – and their initial inability to capture the explosive movements of Bausch’s troupe without flickering and strobing – is a solemn, but poetic tribute to a woman who found a new, physical language to communicate the pain and adulation of human existence, composed from snippets of performance, archive footage, and interviews with Bausch’s troupe of longtime collaborators and friends. “I think what really connected us was a sense of research, and starting from reality, whatever was coming out of it,” Wenders says of his relation to Bausch “All of Pina’s work started, radically, from experience. With improvisation and going deeper and deeper. Then she turned what she found into a dance.”

As if to emphasize this connection between Bausch’s Tanztheater and the keenly felt emotions of everyday life, Wenders also punctuated Pina with scenes of dancers performing in mundane locations around Wupperthal, the home of the Pina Bausch troupe, enacting the snippets of her work to which they are most deeply connected. At one point, one of Bausch’s disciples stomps around the gliding carriage of the city’s funicular rail service, devastating, explosive noises emanating from behind a thick mass of hair thrown over her face. At another, a graceful duet unfolds under a concrete overpass. It’s at times devastating, but always, thanks to those dorky 3D spectacles, completely entrancing. “ It goes to show that 3D can be taken seriously as a medium,” says Wenders. “I’m totally convinced.”

Pina was released April 22.

This article first appeared in Wonderland Issue 26, April/May 2011

Words: Adam Welch