"Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost." This statement of purpose, at once urgent and evasive of reality, by the late choreographer Pina Bausch has been appropriated as the chief marketing line of Wim Wenders's "Pina," a heartsore elegy for her work masquerading as a lithe 3D performance study. The creative restlessness endorsed by these words, however, could as easily describe Wenders own protracted journey to get the film made as any dancing caught by his camera.

The words "labor of love" have acquired a veneer of glib earnestness through overuse, but this is indeed a film born exclusively of its director's devotion to his subject, and his lengthy search for an appropriate cinematic means of serving and preserving her art. The resulting film is something of a one-off, within both the rangy oeuvre of the veteran German filmmaker and the scattershot genre of the dance movie: Bausch's stage pieces, aggressively heightened mini-studies of desperate human behavior, are singular viewing experiences even without the matchless 3D that Wenders has employed to make kinetic screen spectacle of them, even without the subtext of offscreen grief and joy underpinning each number.

"Pina" is a dance film inasmuch as, say, Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" is a sports movie: a ne plus ultra, perhaps, but also another beast entirely. What the Academy makes of it -- it finds itself in the unusual position of contending for both Best Documentary Feature and Best Foreign Language Film honors -- is anyone's guess right now.

Whatever it may be, the film came perilously close to being nothing at all. For one thing, it was never conceived as a posthumous celebration of Bausch's art: over the phone from Los Angeles, Wenders explains to me that he and Bausch collaborated on the project for 20 years, before her untimely death in 2009 seemingly put the whole endeavor on ice.

"Pina first suggested I film her work in the mid-80s, and I took to the idea straight away," he says, his voice warmly scholarly, clipped German vowels slowed ever so slightly by traces of American English. "We never stopped discussing it, debating it really, while we kept working on other projects, and it's clear we were really stalling for time. That it kept not happening wasn't through lack of desire on my part, but rather through lack of knowledge -- I just couldn't think of a way to film dance that would do justice to the live qualities of her work."

Bausch was patient, trusting her friend and collaborator to unlock the concept as his fiction filmmaking took ever more esoteric turns: "'We'll find a better way,' she kept saying to me, every time I suggested a new angle," he remembers, "as if she knew it would actually find us."

Wenders's 'eureka' moment finally came at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, when he attended the premiere of concert documentary "U2 3D" as a friend of, and former collaborator with, the Irish supergroup; he wasn't terribly interested in the film going in, but was instantly dazzled by the 3D technology, and the fluid immediacy it lent to filmed live performance. "After a few minutes, I wasn't even seeing the film," he says. "I just saw on open door."

Wenders knew then that he'd found the way to mount Bausch's theater on screen, but was less convinced that he could actually do it. "It seemed more wishful thinking than anything else at that point," he says. "The technology was so new and so specialized at that point, we couldn't track it down. And even if we could, I didn't know how to use it."

Cue intensive research on the director's part into handling the fast-evolving technology, as well as expanding its limitations: "I wanted a new 3D color process, one that could replicate natural light and not something so effects-driven. We spent 18 months perfecting the technology to capture the elegance, the airiness, of Pina's dance. It was a challenge to bring that much more light to the stage without falsifying the interiors -- the exterior dance scenes were actually far easier to film."

For her part, Bausch was greatly taken with the idea of 3D, though she hadn't seen it put to use herself. "From the way I described it to her, she trusted me that this was the way to go," he says, "but she didn't want to see any footage until it was ready. She didn't want to spoil the finished effect." Wenders waited until he'd completed a substantial section of the film in 3D; then, in June 2009, arranged to transport the completed footage to her. She never saw it: shortly before Wenders's planned unveiling, Bausch died of cancer a mere five days after diagnosis.

"That was the end of the film, as far as I was concerned," Wenders says, an audible tear in his voice. Having conceived the film as a collaboration rather than a tribute, he saw little point in continuing without Bausch's creative direction. It was her own troupe of dancers, then, who persuaded the filmmaker to continue. "They persuaded me that if it couldn't be a film made with her, it could be a film made for her. They had effectively lost their leader: they were grieving deeply, and had this enormous need to express themselves in response. The dancers needed the film more than anyone."

It was at that point that Wenders decided to add the dancers' own verbal tributes to Bausch to the film, alongside the extravagant dance sequences: "We were initially determined to make it a wordless film, but I feared that would be too cryptic. It had become a different project, and it needed the emotional directness of their testimonies."

Though Wenders was aware of the relative novelty of using 3D for an arthouse documentary at a time when it is largely the preserve of Hollywood genre blockbusters, he wasn't expecting it to stay that way until the film's release. "'Avatar' was really the film that put 3D on the map as a cinematic tool, as something with a future, and it's a masterpiece," he says. "That set up such hope for a wave of creative films using this medium, across many genres, and I thought we'd be one of many. But the films have largely got worse since then, more cautious. And many of them are so ugly."

Still, he professes excitement about the technology's future, and is already planning two further 3D projects -- an architecture-themed documentary and a fictional domestic drama. He's particularly looking forward to proving on the latter that 3D can enhance even intimate, small-scale narrative cinema.

I ask if, while completing "Pina," he was aware that his compatriot and contemporary, Werner Herzog, was also working on a elegiac 3D documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"; the films premiered on the same day at last year's Berlin Film Festival, making a joint statement that the technology was no longer for multiplexes alone. He laughs. "Yes, I thought it was funny that it came down to the two old German war horses battling it out! But it's great. I feel certain that we're on the cusp on a new stage of cinema right now -- I'm grateful it's not happening too late for guys like us." 

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