It’s almost impossible to single out an image from Wim Wenders’ beautiful Pina, a celebration of the great German choreographer Pina Bausch. Her work shimmers as it dips in and out of the light. The shot above,  courtesy of (the link also provides the trailer and many other beautiful stills) is from Vollmond/Full Moon; dancers scoop the water that pours down from behind them and splash/play/jump/stomp in it. It’s pure elemental bliss to watch; it must be ecstasy to perform.

Hearing the names Bausch and Wenders coupled, one imagines, if unfamiliar with their work, the grimmest of results; aren’t these two of the most German of artists, and aren’t Germans the most joyless of people? Stereotype busted again. There is extraordinary lightness, exuberance, and grace in every frame of the movie. True, all emotions are covered and are intense in the extreme; there is darkness and sometimes fear and despair. But they are always deeply honest. And when they are joyful, it is highly contagious; I found myself grinning and gasping often.

Bausch said, somewhat famously, “I’m not interested in how people move but what moves them.” Inherent to her process was questioning dancers and having them begin the choreography from a place of interior truth. Indeed, the lack of ego in her dances is stunning. She favors long, flowing ball gowns, often strapless, with the woman’s upper torso rising up like the petals of a flower from the greenery surrounding the stalk, her long hair flowing like a mermaid’s, becoming part of the movement. The men sport often sport angular suits, but just as often light, loose shirts; the clothes and movement are intrinsically linked. And what a vocabulary of movement; there are constant surprises in her work. Her Rite of Spring, one of the most powerful I’ve seen (excerpted a good amount at the beginning of the movie), calls to mind Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery a la a desperate male/female dance-off, suffused with a doomed, plangent beauty.

In addition to shooting dance with consummate mastery – no mean feat, and something very few directors succeed at – perhaps the most exciting choice Wenders made was to include not one “expert” or bit of analysis in the entire thing. There is dance, and there are dancers. Period. As if that weren’t enough of a departure from documentary best practices, Wenders takes the bold move of shooting the dancers in intense close-up without speaking, their voices heard in the background over their silent faces. It’s something that would only be done by someone who truly understands these creatures, who, so eloquent with their bodies, are often painfully shy about opening their mouths – and in fact, a few of them do not speak at all.

The end result is a portrait of people who love and live their art, in, of all the places, the comfy clean town of Wüppertal. People spin in the streets, fly, fall, and one cuddles up with a hippo as orderly trams pass by on squeaky clean streets.

It’s absolutely gorgeous. And it hardly matters that it’s a long shot for the Oscar. Who really cares? Like its subject, Pina is a monument to the transcendence of art, and to the vital truth that those who can express, must – and with all their heart, soul, and mind. Bausch’s last words, and those that end the film, were “Dance, dance, dance….or we are lost.” Wenders’ document serves as one way to stay found.

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