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  • Ontario Arts Council
  • Canada Council for the Arts

An Interview with Wim Wenders

From Brick 89

Brick 89

I lived in New York City through the 1980s, and one of the glories of that time was attending performances presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music under Harvey Lichtenstein. I have a vivid memory of taking the subway from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn (riding in the same crowded car with Lucinda Childs, Laurie Anderson, and Philip Glass) to see Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal for the first time. I watched Café Müller and Le Sacre du Printemps from the far side of the first balcony and was so moved by what I had seen that I couldn’t speak. I remember hundreds of people standing motionless on the huge front steps of the theatre after the performance. Since then I have experienced the astonishing work of Pina Bausch many times.

In 2001, Bausch’s accomplishments were being celebrated by Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, and I was invited to perform. When I took my place on stage, I found myself standing directly in front of Pina, who was seated in the front row. We met eyes and then her face took on a radiant, benevolent expression and she said to me with her gaze: “You and I have never met, but we are both dancers, so we know each other.”

Late in August of 2011, I received a surprising and thoroughly intimidating invitation from Jutta Brendemuehl of the Goethe-Institut Toronto to interview auteur/filmmaker Wim Wenders prior to the Toronto International Film Festival screening of Pina, his homage to the iconoclastic choreographer. Jutta’s idea was that a unique conversation might ensue if Wenders were conversing with a dance artist. I was familiar with Wenders’s work, films that I find surreal and haunting, and I could not refuse the opportunity of speaking with him in relation to Pina Bausch. I spent the time leading up to the interview watching every film by and about Wenders that I could get my hands on. Then I watched a preview copy of Pina on a small television screen in the library of the Goethe-Institut. Bausch’s stunning choreography is captured in the studio, on the stage, and also in a succession of unexpected locations throughout Wuppertal. Wenders alternates this performance footage with intimate portraits of the dancers and fragile-feeling archival footage of Bausch at work. Even without the vivid spatial and kinetic capabilities of 3-D that Wenders considers crucial to this film, the shocking physical and emotional urgency of Pina’s work and world is inescapable.

Baker: I know that prior to encountering the work of Pina Bausch, you described yourself as being disinterested in dance, that you were operating on the assumption that, in fact—

Wenders: Forgive me.

Baker: Well, dance is not appreciated by a huge portion of the population, so it’s not too surprising. But you did have this very powerful experience with Pina’s work in Venice.

Wenders: Yes, it was in 1985. At a retrospective of her work.

Baker: And did you just happen to be there? What brought you to the performance?

Wenders: I didn’t want to go. I had no intention to spend a beautiful evening in Venice in the theatre instead of walking around eating ice cream or pasta. But my girlfriend insisted because she had seen Pina’s piece, Café Müller, a couple of years earlier and was convinced that it was the greatest thing on the planet and I needed to see it.

Baker: And was it Café Müller that you saw?

Wenders: It was the double-bill of Café Müller and Le Sacre du Printemps. As much as I didn’t want to go, after ten minutes I realized this was a life-changing event, and I cried the whole evening through, and we prolonged our stay in Venice so we could see the entire retrospective.

Baker: So it hit you first on a personal level. You didn’t think immediately, Oh, I need to get involved.

Wenders: No. And it couldn’t have hit me on a more personal level because I was completely unprepared. I had not even heard of Pina. I had not been living in Germany, I had been living in America until 1984. Otherwise I would have been aware of her. So I went there against my will and was totally blown away, like nothing else ever before.

Baker: And when did you meet Pina? Did you meet her on that trip?

Wenders: I met her two days later after seeing two more pieces. We met in a little café right next to the Venetian theatre, and we talked for ten minutes. I shouldn’t say we talked because she didn’t talk. I’m not talkative, but I was just so enthusiastic—this was a huge discovery for me, her work—that I kept babbling on, and because she didn’t say anything I had to keep talking.

Baker: Was she aware of your work? Had she seen it?

Wenders: She had seen some of my films. She was aware, for instance, of Alice in the Cities, which I shot in Wuppertal the same year that Pina took over the Wuppertal Opera in 1973. But of course, we didn’t know each other. So in this ten minutes that I had with Pina, I also said in my enthusiasm that eventually we should do a film together. And again Pina didn’t say a thing. She lit a cigarette, smiled a very enigmatic smile, and made me feel quite foolish because I thought she probably thought this was a preposterous idea. And I changed the subject. That was our first encounter. She didn’t say anything.

Baker: So when did you raise this idea of making a film with her again?

Wenders: I didn’t, but the next time I saw her was a year later in Wuppertal, and she said, as if it had been the other day: “You mentioned the idea of a movie. That is interesting.”

Baker: But you were hesitant because . . .

Wenders: I wasn’t hesitant, I was all for it and very excited, and only when Pina got more serious about it and actually started to talk about it, then I sat down and started to think, How would I make a movie with Pina? By then I had seen a number of her pieces, but the more I’d seen, the less I knew how to do this movie. The more I thought about it, the more it evaded me. And in my despair I went to see lots of dance films and realized that there was an immanent problem between dance and film. I mean, not so much when there was a story like Singing in the Rain or The Red Shoes, but as long as there was no story, or as long as it was just, for instance, filming a presentation, I didn’t see anything that seemed remotely adequate. German television had recorded a number of Pina’s pieces, and Pina showed me one that she had been involved with, but she didn’t like it. She thought it should be done better. And that was the difficult thing because I didn’t know how to do it better. The more I got involved and the more I knew Pina’s work, the more it seemed impossible to do it any justice with film cameras.

Baker: So did you start sketching any ideas before you . . . ?

Wenders: Yes, oh yes. I watched numerous shows and tried to imagine how to film them, because that would have been the first thing, to know how to film Pina’s work in order to make a movie with it. But I have to be a little more precise. I didn’t just want to make a film with it. My intention—and Pina knew this—was to make a film about her way of seeing and how it was like nobody else’s; why she saw things that film directors and other people I know don’t see; why she was able to decipher body language like nobody else. I think it was because Pina never spoke much, and because she watched with such patience and such vengeance. I mean, she would never stop watching, and she would remember everything. So I wanted to make a film about Pina’s look, and how she was able to transform what she saw into these magnificent pieces. And I figured there was no use in making a film about her look if I couldn’t show the work in a way that represented the magic or this contagious quality that it had. But I didn’t know how to do it.

Baker: So even before the 3-D film idea, you had sketches going, you had ideas about how you wanted to . . . ?

Wenders: I had ideas, but none of them worked.

Baker: So how did you finally arrive at the time when you were ready to start filming?

Wenders: It took twenty years. We started in the mid-1980s, and it became really some sort of running gag between us. I would have dropped everything to do this film with Pina, and everybody who knew me knew how much I wanted to make this film, but everybody also knew that I didn’t have an answer. But Pina never gave up on me. She insisted.

Baker: She’s patient.

Wenders: She was Patience Incorporated, and she would wait. And I thought I had to find it in myself, but I found it in an area where I never looked. I found it in technology. In 2007, I saw my first digital 3-D film. I went to see it because it was a film with a genius title, U2 3D, a concert film. And from the first section on, I knew that was it. Eureka! And I called Pina—the credits were still rolling and I had to shout, “I know now!” And I went to see her very soon afterwards, and we started to actively prepare this film together in the fall of 2007.

Baker: But I must say, I’ve seen the screener on a tiny screen in 2-D, and it’s completely successful even without this huge experience because of the way that it’s constructed. It’s like a piece of choreography, the whole thing from beginning to end—taking us in and out of the stage space, in and out of interiors to exterior spaces, with archival film, with these beautiful, beautiful portraits of the dancers. When you were talking about trying to capture the way that Pina looks, the faces of those dancers captured by your camera—sometimes we hear a voiceover, sometimes we just see them immediately before we see them dance—I felt I was looking at those dancers with the same kind of candour that she must have experienced.

Wenders: Well, you’re the only other person to tell me that it works in 2-D.

Baker: I haven’t seen it in 3-D yet, and also I felt so grateful that I’d seen it because it’s very, very emotional, and I am almost afraid of the—

Wenders: I have this one-eyed friend who also thinks it works. I mean, you’re very right about the presence of these dancers, and they’re the ones responsible for the fact that the film exists. I gave up on the film completely, cancelled it, called everybody the day after Pina died and said the film was not going to be made. We were two months away from shooting, and Pina died really from one day to another. None of us knew, none of the dancers, none of her company, none of her friends. She was diagnosed with cancer and she died five days later. The only person who knew was her son. And I cancelled the film because the film would have been a film about Pina’s eyes and her look. I wanted to watch her work. I would have accompanied the company to Wuppertal, to Korea, and to South America. I would have travelled with them over the course of a year, and we would have shot these four pieces that Pina had selected for the film. And then she died, and the only thing left to do was to say, “Well, that was it, we waited for too long.”

But very soon after her death, her dancers decided to continue, to fulfill as a company their obligations for touring and performances. They elected artistic directors—Pina’s long-time assistant, Robert Sturm, and the oldest dancer, Dominique Mercy—and they decided to stay together as an ensemble and continue for at least three years. So two months after Pina’s death, they started to rehearse these pieces that Pina and I had wanted to film together. And the dancers made it clear to me that they didn’t think it was a good idea not to film it, that they, on the contrary, were convinced that Pina would have wanted us to film it. Pina’s look was still on these pieces, and some of the young dancers had been rehearsed by Pina, and who knew if they were ever going to do these pieces again? The dancers said, “We’re doing it, and Pina wouldn’t understand that you are not filming it.”

Baker: Well, thank goodness you went ahead . . .

Wenders: We jumped back in and at least shot these four pieces [Café Müller, Le Sacre du Printemps, Vollmond, and Kontakthof] in order to preserve them in their entirety.

Baker: Oh, you did?

Wenders: Yes. I also edited all four in their entirety.

Baker: And they were all filmed on a stage setting?

Wenders: All entirely on her stage at the Wuppertal Opera.

Baker: So all the exterior, all the other scenes, were ideas that you came to later.

Wenders: At the time, all of that had not even been thought of. We had our hands full to shoot the four pieces. Then we took a break for three months, and I started editing these pieces to see how they looked in 3-D and to think how I could turn this into a film. And how I could still somehow make a film about Pina’s eyes and her way of looking at dancers and at life. By then I had got to know these dancers really well. We had worked for weeks and weeks together, and I realized that they were my only asset. The only way to finish the film was with them, and that slowly brought the realization that in order to finish the film, I had to adopt Pina’s own methods. The way she had developed her pieces was that she would rehearse for months with her dancers, but she wouldn’t show them stuff to dance, she would ask them questions. At least that’s the method that, over the years, slowly evolved. For the last twenty years, all of her pieces were made like this. There was a subject, an idea for a piece, and Pina would start asking her questions. And the questions were around the subject of the piece; they would be very personal, intimate questions and also general questions, and the dancers could not answer them with words, with language, but only with dance, with gestures. And they’d try to answer a question like, “How do you feel on your first day when you’re separated from your husband or your lover?” Whatever. Lots of questions. “What does the morning sun mean to you?”

Baker: So you entered into the same relationship with these dancers, by posing questions. And this is how you chose your location?

Wenders: Well, you’re going so fast.

Baker: I’m so curious about this.

Wenders: I adopted Pina’s method and asked the dancers questions about Pina—about Pina’s eyes, about what Pina had seen in them, what was the best that she had brought out in everybody, and again they were not allowed to answer other than with dance. But as I’m not a choreographer, I asked them to not answer with something improvised but with something out of their relationship with Pina, either something from a piece where they felt that each of them had been closest to Pina, or something they had rehearsed with her, that never ended up in a piece. Every dancer showed me one or two or three answers in the rehearsal room. It was a long process, and I started to select the answers that wouldn’t overlap too much, so that all the answers about Pina would give a larger image of her. But then I had no stage to shoot these dances on. The Stadttheater, Pina’s very own stage where she had worked for the last twenty years, had closed. The city didn’t have the money to comply with the new fire code, police, and stuff, so in her last year Pina had to go back to work at the Wuppertal Opera House. But I could not use the opera house because it was booked for the rest of the year. And again I adopted Pina’s own method. I remembered a movie that she made in 1990—that was the only year out of the last twenty-five that she didn’t make a new piece for the stage. The film was called Die Klage der Kaiserin [The Lament of the Empress]. It was shot in the city of Wuppertal, all over the place. So I decided I would also go outside. And for a couple of months I was doing nothing but looking because I tried to find a specific place for each of these thirty-six dancers, and for each and every one of them to find a place that would bring out that answer in the best possible way. That’s why we shot on street corners and in the middle of traffic, and in some of the industrial wastelands around Wuppertal, in parks, all sorts of places. That was our second shooting period, in the spring and summer of 2010. I mean, really, for this film, there was no plan. We had to abandon the concept that we had before, and in the course of the work, we realized a way to turn it into a movie after all. We shot for about a year, and then I edited for a year and a half. You know that editing for a year and a half is very, very long. But it needed it because I had so much stuff. The four pieces alone were altogether five and a half hours, and all the dance answers together were twenty hours. To make a film that was some sort of a guided tour into Pina’s universe took a long time. It’s difficult with a documentary if you don’t have a thread—and we didn’t have a thread to start—and to then find a way that it emotionally and mentally makes sense. And as you saw it on a small screen, you probably are very much more aware of this thread than if you saw it on a movie screen. You sort of get lost more in the 3-D. But if you see it in 2-D on a small screen, you probably very much realize the structure it has. That’s a funny thing, that on a big movie screen, you get so involved in a moment that the structure disappears. But of course it’s still there.

Baker: Well, I would love to ask you more questions, but I need to offer the opportunity to our audience.

Audience: What was is it specifically about 3-D that solved the problem you had?

Wenders: Well, Peggy mentioned these portraits of the dancers. That’s the kind of portrait you know from every movie, close-ups, television shows. But in 3-D, if you have someone sitting in front of the camera, it is an entirely different thing, because on a two- dimensional screen you have a flat image, and the person sitting in front of you turns into a flat image like any landscape, like any room, and we’ve all gotten accustomed to that representation of the human being on the movie screen. In front of a 3-D camera, all of a sudden you have volume, a person has round shoulders and a round head, the face is protruding, you feel the entire volume of the body and the presence of the person in front of the camera. And don’t think that any of the 3-D films you have seen has prepared you for that, because the 3-D cinema, especially the blockbusters, have not made use of the medium in any way. I mean, they’re action- or story-driven, or God knows what, but the presence of a human being simply sitting in front of the camera—you have not seen it. And you understand the choreography in a way that you can’t possibly in a two-dimensional screen. There is distance that the 2-D screen creates; in three-dimensional cinema, the screen disappears and you not only have width and space but you have this incredible thing that is volume. A body in front of you is there. And that of course is what convinced me when I saw my first 3-D film. I realized that was the way to enter into the realm of dancers. Space is their kingdom, and all of a sudden I wasn’t outside looking at that kingdom, but I was in it.

Audience: Can you talk a bit more about what you saw in Venice that just blew you away?

Wenders: I had seen dance before. I had seen classical dance, and in a way, I felt it wasn’t for me and maybe other people got more out of it than I did, but it had never touched me. But Pina’s work was so different from anything I had ever seen. I can quote that motto of hers—it’s very well-known in the dance world—Pina said, “I’m not interested in how my dancers move; I’m interested in what moves them.” And that is, in a nutshell, the reversal and the revolution that she brought. And of course today there are lots of companies that work with that principle and with improvisation, and with material that’s coming out of life. But I was so touched when I first saw a piece by Pina that night because I didn’t need to know anything about dance in order to be touched. Pina’s dancers aren’t these athletic heroes like these people that you see in classic ballet. Pina’s dancers are old, too old, and young, or too short and too tall, or skinny, or a little more opulent sometimes; they’re common humanity, so to speak, and I felt that this was life itself that was on the stage, reduced to a language that I could follow and speak. And before, dance was a language that, I don’t know, didn’t touch me. It’s different now, and I can also see other pieces in other companies, finally see something that I didn’t see before. But because Pina had that initial impact, it stayed with me more than anything else. And I’m not sure if anybody else really worked that way before or acquired this whole encyclopedia of human behaviour and body language. She created this incredible wealth.

Baker: She did, but it’s also not a system that other people can use and suddenly they’ll make great work.

Wenders: Yes, it’s a very fragile process. It’s so difficult to condense this material into a public performance, to say something with all these things that were initially improvised and then shape and form them into a structure. And maybe the reason that it’s not something that anybody can do is that you need to have taste and you need to have a lot of patience, and a lot of modesty also to see a lot of stuff, hundreds of hours, and then see the second that really says something. I’d be scared to do it. You see, film directors, we all think we know the territory because we deal with actors, we tell them what to do, we tell them sometimes how to move. It’s a tall story, but Nicholas Ray told me, “I taught James Dean how to walk.” So we think as film directors we have a hand in their work. We correct them, “Don’t do that, do that,” and after a while you think you understand a little about body language. And then you see Pina and you realize we’re fucking analphabets. We know nothing, we know nothing. At least that’s what I understood.

Audience: Can you imagine or speculate Pina’s reaction to what you’ve done?

Wenders: That was, of course, a constant question on every day of shooting because I had told her so much about this 3-D and had been so enthusiastic.We had also spoken about the pieces and how to film them in 3-D. When I finally did it without her, it was like she was looking over my shoulder all the time. I constantly had to answer the question, Is it good enough? Is it what I promised you? I was afraid quite often of the answer, but in the end, especially in the editing room, I felt that we did the right thing and that Pina would have, or does, enjoy this. But it’s a tricky question, I cannot prove it. The dancers are very happy. The effect of the year of work was tremendous on the company because they were shocked, they were in pieces. The carpet was pulled from under them. Some of them had worked with Pina for thirty years. For some of them, Pina was the centre of their lives, and all of a sudden she was gone and they hadn’t even been able to say goodbye. So the work that we did over the year also helped to deal with the grief. It gave some of them a feeling that they were able to say goodbye, were able to say thank you. And now they’re representing Pina’s work with a lot of confidence. They will perform in London at the Olympics. It’s the most ambitious thing in the history of Pina’s company. They will show ten pieces, and that is a real marathon. Normally they do three or four during the year. They know that it’s in their hands now, this heritage. They’re doing it with a lot of pride, which wasn’t the case when we started. We were all just way too shocked. So it’s been good for us to do this work.

Peggy Baker is one of Canada’s most influential and celebrated dance artists. Since 1974, she has performed internationally with her own work, and also with the companies of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris, Paul-André Fortier, Lar Lubovitch, Tere O’Connor, Molissa Fenley, and Doug Varone. She is artist-in-residence at Canada’s National Ballet School.

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