Writers & Company

The imaginative leaps of German filmmaker Wim Wenders

In this 2011 interview, the German director spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about making road movies, the magic of dance and his documentary about the late German choreographer Pina Bausch.
German director Wim Wenders created the 2011 film Pina, a tribute to late German dancer and choreographer Philippine "Pina" Bausch. (Sascha Schuermann/DDP/AFP via Getty Images, Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images, John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)

Wim Wenders is an icon of the New Wave of German Cinema. 

His breakthrough film, Paris,Texas, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984. He followed its success with Wings of Desire in 1987, which won the Best Director Award at Cannes. The two movies secured a global reputation for Wenders, launching a career that spans four decades and showcases his broad stylistic range. 

In 2011, Wenders created a 3D documentary that pays tribute to a fellow German artist, Pina Bausch. She was a choreographer who pioneered a unique style of dance, pulling it closer to theatre. When Wenders attended a performance in Venice, the experience moved him so much, he says it changed his life. 

Pina Bausch died suddenly in 2009, just before production began on the movie. Pina won Best Documentary at the European Film Awards and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars. 

Wenders spoke with Eleanor Wachtel at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, where Pina was an official selection.  

Discovering the road movie

"The characters in my early films — Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, The American Friend — are all about trying to find a different kind of life. They are travellers, lonesome travellers. Travis in Paris, Texas is as lonesome a traveller as you can find. 

"That was a huge discovery for me that there was a genre in movies that dealt with traveling. I didn't really know about it.  I found out by doing my very first film that you could actually shoot and travel and be on a journey with the film.

Film can be an adventure and you can have an adventure and film it. That was only possible in this road movie genre.

"You could actually make movies in chronological order, because if you are on a journey one thing happens after another — and that itinerary can sort of replace a screenplay. Film can be an adventure and you can have an adventure and film it. That was only possible in this road movie genre. 

"Afterwards, I discovered that there were other films that had done this, and that it was actually a legitimate genre. But I discovered it for myself."

Moved by movement

"I remember very well my first experience with the choreography of Pina Bausch. It was in 1985. It was an involuntary experience, because I had no intention to see dance that night.

"My girlfriend dragged me into this show in Venice. It was a beautiful summer night. I had much different plans and no intention to spend the evening watching dance. I didn't have much affinity to it. I thought it wasn't for me and that it didn't concern me. 

I had never been moved by anything like how I was moved that night. I realized this was big.

"So I finally caved in, grumpily. I went into this theatre in Venice to see Café Müller. It changed my life. It was one of the greatest things I saw. It was one of the most emotional nights of my life. After 10 minutes, I sat on the edge of my seat, weeping for the entire thing. I'd never seen anything like it.

"I had never been moved by anything like how I was moved that night. I realized this was big. What Pina Bausch, this unknown woman, was doing for me was tremendous. Café Müller told me more about men and women than the entire history of cinema. 

Dancers from German choreographer Pina Bausch's troop repeat Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

Step into dance

"I felt that what these men and women are doing on stage in Café Müller was humanity itself. It's a piece about sleepwalking characters who are in this strange room, which is like a dance cafe. There are lots of chairs and they're looking for each other. But they are sleepwalking; they miss each other, they long for each other. They love each other; they hate each other.

I felt that what these six men and women are doing on stage in Cafe Muller was humanity itself.

"There is a guy who guides them and helps them to find each other, but then they lose each other again. It's a play about love, but about love in a physical way —  and also a metaphorical way. Everything takes place in this one room and these people are in this state of half-asleep, half-awake — as if life was just a dream and they just wasted their lives. 

"It's about everything you can tell about the feelings between men and women — attraction and rejection and separation and love and longing. It's all there. It's all told without a single word. There's not one word of dialogue, just the language of bodies.

"For me, that was the incredible discovery."

Director Wim Wenders with Pina Bausch in 2008. His 2011 3D dance film was a tribute to the late choreographer and dancer. (Thomas Lohnes/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)

My meeting with Pina

"My friendship with Pina Bausch started one day when we sat together in a little coffee shop in Venice.  Pina didn't have much time and she didn't know me.  She was very enigmatic and mysterious and didn't say anything. I'm not a big talker myself and I had nothing else to do than talk because she didn't say a thing.  

I told her that one day we should make a film together. But it didn't seem to impress Pina very much.

"I babbled on and in my enthusiasm, I told her that one day we should make a film together. But it didn't seem to impress Pina very much. She lit another cigarette and smiled. I even wondered whether she had heard what I had said and changed the subject. Maybe she thought it was preposterous. 

"Then we met again a year later and she asked me, as if it had been the day before, 'You mentioned a movie last time. That is interesting.'

"From that day on, the movie was on the table."

Sequences of movement 

"It took a few months to understand that the film could only exist if I adopted Pina's own methods. If I asked these dancers all the questions that I would have wanted Pina to answer, but they couldn't answer with language or words. That's the way Pina worked with them. They developed all these pieces with Pina's very own method of questioning, which was asking them hundreds of very personal and detailed things. They were only allowed to answer with their bodies and with dance.

It took a few months to understand that the film could only exist if I adopted Pina's own methods.

"There were all sorts of questions about love and hate. Some were simple questions like, 'How do you feel when the sunlight hits your face in the morning?' or 'Show me how you feel when your loved one leaves you?' In this way, Pina would have hundreds of hours of material for a piece and then select, very rigidly, only a little percentage.

"That's the way we worked…I was using the same rules of the game as Pina. As I'm not a choreographer, I asked them to not answer with an improvisation like they would have done with Pina, but with something out of the huge experience and repertoire with Pina. Everybody showed me lots of answers. I selected one answer from each and then started to think hard of film these answers. These dances really became the main bulk of the film that exists now."

Wim Wenders's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this post stated that Wim Wenders won the Palme d'Or for Best Director for Wings of Desire. In fact, the award is called the Best Director Award.
    Jul 27, 2020 3:56 PM ET

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