In the 1980s, when Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Tanztheater Company made its early tours of Europe and the U.S., the reaction was sensational: high praise and hot denunciations. Her skits, often involving the repetition of violent physical movement, inspired a full generation of avant-dancers and choreographers. Bausch so wowed Federico Fellini that he cast her as the blind duchess in his 1983 film And the Ship Sails On; in 2002, Pedro Almodóvar would include scenes of Bausch’s “Café Müller” and “Masurca Fogo” in Talk to Her. Arlene Croce, the New Yorker dance critic, was deeply impressed in a different way. In a review entitled “Bad Smells,” Croce tagged Bausch as a “theater terrorist” whose work exploited “feminist paranoia,” “the pornography of pain” and “the raw pulp of abuse.” One of the dances, “1980,” hinted to Croce “what life must be like in the Bausch company: Animal House with Weltschmerz.”
Croce thought Bausch’s dance work was crazy; Wim Wenders went crazy for her dance work. Attending a Bausch recital in Venice in the mid-’80s, he told TIME, “I found myself sitting there and after five minutes, I started crying. I couldn’t really help it. I was weeping like a baby throughout the entire thing and I was caught by an emotion that I’d never experienced in front of any stage; any dance, theater, opera, whatever.” He got it, but he didn’t get it. “My body understood it, but my brain was lagging far behind.” Fascinated and baffled, he met the choreographer and thought of making a film with her. Decades passed, until Wenders had the inspiration to shoot the film in 3-D. All was ready in June 2009, when Bausch was diagnosed with a brain tumor; she died five days later, at 68. Bereft and intending to abandon the project, Wenders was persuaded by the Tanztheater members to press on with a different vision: excerpts from Bausch’s most famous pieces interspersed with exercises and comments by the troupe. The result is Pina: Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.
(READ: A Q&A with Wim Wenders on Pina)
Art at the extremes needs only a few decades to clarify itself, even to the uninitiated. (i.e., me.) Bausch’s work, which may at first glance have seemed brutal and chaotic, now looks classic and darkly comic — funny-peculiar. In the dancers’ deadpan athleticism, I find hints of two saturnine humorists: Buster Keaton in his silent-film glory and Samuel Beckett in his late, minimnalist playlets. (These dour spirits cemented their kinship in 1965 when Keaton starred in Beckett’s short, silent Film.) One short piece in Pina is a pure sight gag. A woman says “I am strong.” Cut to her in a standing position, flexing her mammoth muscles Schwarzenegger-style. Actually she has her arms folded behind her, in front of a man flexing his own muscles. It’s droll but not new: 80 years before, Keaton posed behind the Venus de Milo, as if her torso was his.
(READ: Corliss on Buster Keaton’s earliest comedies)
Because Bausch’s art is theater as much as dance, with the occasional use of dialogue, it gives viewers a narrative, however brief or elliptical, to follow. She sketches portraits and tells stories through motion, though not the graceful pirouettes of a Balanchine swan-princess. By pushing her dancers into figures of physical awkwardness, Bausch created kinetic metaphors for the clumsiness of social intercourse; her pieces were often repetitive comedies of discomfort — and, sometimes, discomfort for the audience.
Consider the dancers’ elegant thrashing in “Café Müller”: it suggests both a premonition of kids’ spasmodic movements on the night-club floor and a wry twist on German Expressionist movies: a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that might have been choreographed by the inmates. In another Pina piece, Wenders sets the camera just outside an empty room, where a woman on a long tether stretches to get to the far wall, straining, hurtling herself to reach her goal or snap the tether. At the rear, through another open door, walks another woman whose backpack holds a 10-foot tree. Is this a metaphor for an enslaved woman’s urge to liberation? Playful or sadistic surrealism? Viewers can only wonder as they watch; but Bausch’s pieces are always worth watching.
She wasn’t alone in renouncing the ladylike liquidity of previous ballet masters for more modern, herky-jerky rhythms. Her style was a Euro-art extension of the more acrobatic dance troupes of the ’70s: the American company Pilobolus (whose founding members included future choreographers Martha Clarke and Moses Pendleton) and the Swiss group Mummenschanz. Bausch’s work also had affinities with the slouching, lurching, anti-beauty balletics of Bob Fosse and Twyla Tharp. All these choreographers were active by 1972, when Bausch was named artistic director of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet. She didn’t get there first; she just took it further and higher.
As Bausch was creating her dances at Wuppertal, Wenders was there in early 1974 shooting Alice in the Cities, which served as the 28-year-old’s breakthrough to the international audience. Soon he was mentioned with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog in the triumvirate of important German directors. Like Herzog, Wenders enjoyed early esteem with his fiction features, including that heavenly meditation Wings of Desire. He then poured much of his filmmaking energy into documentaries: on director Nicholas Ray (Lightning Over Water), fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto (Notebook on Cities and Clothes) and many musicians, most notably the Cuban instrumentalists of Buena Vista Social Club.
(FIND: Wings of Desire on the all-TIME 100 Movies List)
Having solved the riddle of making music visual, Wenders had to determine how to make dance-on-film cinematic in Pina. Fred Astaire insisted that the camera show him and Ginger Rogers in full shot, from head to toe. Later directors foolishly framed dances to cut the performers off at the waist, or use frenzied editing to simulate the can’t-sit-down pulse of rock choreography. Wenders mostly goes the Astaire route, in the long shots needed to capture Bausch’s mass of dancers, sometimes a few dozen, in their group movements or idiosyncratic variations. He shoots snatches of four prime Bausch pieces — “Café Müller,” “Sacre du printemps,” “Vollmond” and “Kontakthof” — on a traditional stage, while filming other pieces in the Tanztheater’s home city. One dancer performs outside the theater; another moves violently at the edge of a quarry; others cavort in traffic. To Bausch’s dedicated avatars, all of Wuppertal is a stage for their extraordinary exertions.
Herzog employed 3-D to bring the contours of Neolithic wall paintings to life in his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Wenders’ use of the technique is just as essential to Pina; his gliding camera lures the viewer into the dance space as a virtual participant in the action. “I am less interested in how people move,” Bausch said of her dancers, “than in what moves them.” Thanks to her hurtling, capacious vision, and Wenders’ artful fidelity, Pina is, in every way, a moving experience.
(FIND: Cave of Forgotten Dreams on TIME’s Top 10 Best Movies of 2011)