Breaking boundaries


by Robert Alstead


on a city street a barebacked man runs, holding a woman in midair
Dancers perform in Wim Wenders’ Pina

Two films due to open this month bring the wizardry of digital cinema to the arthouse with stunning results. Firstly, there’s Wim Wenders’ Pina 3D, a portrait of the work of the celebrated German choreographer Pina Bausch (due out January 27).

Pina was a film that almost didn’t get made. On June 30, 2009, only two days before the planned 3D rehearsal shoot, its subject Pina Bausch suddenly died. After a period of mourning, Wenders decided to go ahead with a “memoir,” showcasing Bausch’s theatrical choreography and the muscular grace of the dancers from Bausch’s internationally diverse Tanztheater Wuppertal.

The core of the film – and where the 3D cinematography really comes into its own – is the live performances of four of Bausch’s choreographed pieces. The 3D gives the stage depth and, at times, it’s almost like being among the performers. The dancing is mesmerizing, from the explosive, shape-shifting movement of the opening The Rite of Spring, performed on a carpet of peat, to the exuberant Vollmond where the dancers cavort on a stage swimming with water (a stage electrician’s nightmare, no doubt).

Archive footage of Bausch performing her signature piece, the minimalist Café Müller, with its at times scrabbly, fidgety movement, is juxtaposed with a later 3D performance. In the fourth piece, Kontakthof, the filmmaker’s hand is much in evidence with jump cuts between different generations of performers mid-performance.

Bausch rarely gave verbal advice (the occasions she did are cherished by the dancers like gold nuggets). She preferred to show. Similarly, Wenders has the dancers express themselves in movement – in a street, a factory, a swimming pool or in a woodland with a leaf-blower blasting – accentuating their otherworldliness. I came out of this film thinking I really must see more dance.

The second film breaking new boundaries is The Mill and the Cross, which steps inside the 1564 painting The Way to Calvary by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel. The painting/film sets Christ’s crucifixion in Flanders during a period of thuggish Spanish repression (due out January 6).

Polish director Lech Majewski’s imagining, based on the book by Michael Francis Gibson, tells the stories of a dozen characters from the busy canvas of 500 individuals. The script, which uses little dialogue, stays loyal to the spirit of the painting: surreal scenes take us inside the windmill, featured atop a high precipice in the painting and Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) describes to his friend and art collector Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York) how he has painted the tragedy of religious persecution epitomized by the figure of the Virgin Mary (a mournful Charlotte Rampling).

Majewski used different techniques to merge art and real life. Actors were shot against a blue screen so they could be superimposed later in craggy landscapes shot on location as well as against a large version of Bruegel’s work (painted by Majewski). The stylized backdrop is sufficiently subtle that your awareness of being “in” the painting ebbs and flows. It’s an unusual film, but rewarding.

Robert Alstead writes at

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