Wim Wenders was on the verge of shooting a long-planned 3-D documentary on his friend, celebrated choreographer Pina Bausch, when she died suddenly, at 68, of belatedly diagnosed cancer. I sat down with the Wings of Desire director at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he talked about resurrecting the project (Germany’s foreign-language Oscar submission) and using 3-D, which he feels is “as big a development as going from silent to sound.”
It’s strange to say this, but the movie seems like a superior way to watch Bausch’s work, because you can see the dancers from varying perspectives.
In many ways it is a very privileged way to see it, but altogether I hope the film comes at least close to what the life experience actually is. Of course, you have some added values. You can be on the stage, which, as an audience, you normally cannot. But life is still the royal way to attend it.
When was the first time you saw a Bausch production?
’85. A double bill of Café Müller and Sacre du Printemps. Actually I had to be forced to go in.
Not a dance fan?
No, not at all. Include me out. I had other plans for that night, but my girlfriend at the time was really insistent. She had seen Pina before in France and was of the firm opinion that it was something I absolutely needed to see. I’m eternally grateful that she twisted my arm.
The movie stages some dances in public spaces—by a tram, in blowing leaves.
The film that Pina and I had wanted to make would not have included any of these shoots in the streets of Wuppertal. It would have included the four pieces that the film also shows, and I would accompany Pina on two journeys to Southeast Asia and South America. And I would have filmed rehearsals and corrections the next day after the performances. I really wanted to show Pina at work.
You were close to starting shooting when she died in 2009.
Nothing prepared us for her death. Her company was shell-shocked. She just went from one day to another. At first I abandoned the project and declared I was not going to do it anymore. Then the dancers convinced me I needed to do it after all. It was important for them to be able to say good-bye somehow through the film.
Did the use of 3-D change the way you view filmmaking?
If it wasn’t for 3-D, we’d never have made the movie. Because as much as Pina and I wanted to do this film together, I was at a loss of how to do it. I felt my craft and what cameras can do—conventional cameras—wasn’t good enough. So for years and years and years, I was stalling. Pina kept really urging me. Then 3-D came up and I realized, with the first digital 3-D film that I saw, which was U2 3D , that was the language we needed to film dance.
Much of your fiction filmmaking in recent years hasn’t been well-received. How have you reacted to that?
I don’t know. Million Dollar Hotel  wasn’t received well, and now I have all these people who say it’s the most important thing they saw around the turn of the century. I’m completely certain that if Wings of Desire were to come out this year, it would not be noticed.
Pina opens Friday 20 at AMC River East 21 and Century 12 Evanston.