The performers in the late German choreographer Pina Bausch's fusions of dance and theatre - energetic, breast-beating, deliberate in their knicker-flashing - form such complex, striking patterns it makes sense a director should seek to preserve them on screen using the new 3D format. Wim Wenders' tribute doc Pina - like his Buena Vista Social Club, a record of its subject's greatest hits, with a few biographical sleeve notes thrown in - achieves its best effects transplanting Bausch's pieces from the stage to the sundappled forests, traffic islands and industrial zones of her native Wuppertal, in the process opening up some hugely controlled and mysterious gestures to the wider world, and testing the thesis that the emotions these movements convey are in fact more universal than perhaps first assumed.
Yet that pure feeling/sensation in Bausch's work - which Pedro Almodovar tapped in folding a snippet of the choreographer's best-known piece "Café Müller" into his 2002 film Talk to Her - only gets Wenders' film so far, the dancers' airy appraisals of their mentor failing to contribute to any deeper understanding of the spectacle. Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal remains a closed shop, accessible to but a select few. Though Wenders' own filming of "Müller" employs clever shifts in perspective - cutting from the original stage plans to a latter-day performance, and intercutting this with archive footage of Pina herself dancing the part - I couldn't begin to tell you what it's actually about, save the possible health-and-safety risks in establishments with disproportionately high ratios of chairs to tables or clients.
For the rehearsal-room piece "Kontakthof", Wenders cheats - cutting freely between young, old and middle-aged couples - to create a sequence that is undeniably more dramatic, yet which muddies his subject's original choreography: the piece couldn't ever be staged this way in the real world, and so we end up wondering whether these were all Bausch dancers, or actors, mere stand-ins, Wenders had employed for the purpose. As for the bit with two men spitting water at one another, or the sequence that finds one woman shovelling heaps of dirt onto another: well, I'm sorry, but WTF?
Set against Werner Herzog's roaming Cave of Forgotten Dreams - the other recent example of a German arthouse veteran venturing into the realms of the stereoscopic - Pina starts to seem monomaniacal. The pieces selected come to blur into one, and for all the added value 3D offers Wenders' depiction of planes of theatrical space, I started to long for the contextualising corridors and backrooms of Frederick Wiseman's 2D documentary La Danse - those elements that broke up the scenery and set the dancers' extraordinary movements more effectively against the rigid ordinariness of daily routine and rehearsal. Pina, by contrast, has next to nothing on its subject's life away from the footlights, and no-one among the entourage of this surely-demanding figure can bring themselves to utter a bad word against her. It's a nice try, and an undeniably pretty, polished example of blue-riband arthouse cinema, but I left the cinema unconverted, my feet welded firmly to the ground.
Pina opens in selected cinemas from today. A version of this review ran in today's Metro, and can be read here.