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The new film "Pina" almost didn't get made, yet it's now Germany's official Oscar entry and a collaboration between two giants of that country's postwar generation of artists - the late choreographer Pina Bausch and the filmmaker Wim Wenders. The documentary captures Bausch's groundbreaking modern dance works in 3-D. The film was just opened in New York and Los Angeles. Pat Dowell reports.

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: Wim Wenders is best known in the U.S. for such 1980s dramas as "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire." Several books of his art photographs have been published. And Wenders' interest in music led him to make the much-loved 1999 documentary "The Buena Vista Social Club." But modern dance was not one of his interests.

WIM WENDERS: Dance, include me out. The first time I ever saw the Pina Bausch Company perform, my girlfriend really, literally dragged me.

DOWELL: It was a 1985 performance by Bausch's company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal.

WENDERS: I found myself on the edge of my seat crying like a baby after five minutes and crying through the entire thing. Helplessly crying. It was like lightning struck me. It changed my life that night. This unknown woman, Pina Bausch, showed me in 40 minutes more about men and women than the entire history of cinema.

DOWELL: Wenders met Bausch the next day, and immediately they began to plan a film together. She set two ground rules: no biography of her, no interview with her - just the dances that had won her nearly every major global prize.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWELL: The performance Wenders saw was Bausch's signature piece "Cafe Muller." Wenders ultimately filmed it for his documentary. The stage is set as a cafe, with tables and chairs. A woman blindly plods across the room. A startled man pushes chairs out of her way to clear a path across a space usually thought of as a gathering spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIRS BANGING)

DOWELL: People do not connect easily in Cafe Muller, however, and their jerky, hesitant attempts become a social metaphor. A woman repeatedly throws herself against a wall and sticks to it in awkward poses.

PINA BAUSCH: What kind of feeling must this woman have to do something like this? I mean, it's not so difficult to think this, no?

DOWELL: Pina Bausch defended her work to NPR in 1988 when some critics and audiences were saying that it was too ugly to be called dance.

BAUSCH: If people are very sad or something, it doesn't look so pretty. In ballet, usually you speak about certain kind of people. You have a different story. It's almost like a fairy tale, it's a fable, it's like princess. In this, we speak about us; we are the heroes on the street.

MARK SWED: She had changed the whole notion of what dance was.

DOWELL: Mark Swed is classical music critic of The Los Angeles Times. He says that Bausch opened the door for modern choreographers in terms of subject matter and staging, with her feminist portrayal of sexual aggression and her use of nudity.

SWED: She dealt with themes of destruction, and it could feel very nihilistic, except that she always put the pieces back together. You didn't come out depressed - ever - from the work. You could come out a little confused, a little bewildered, but also inspired.

DOWELL: Bewildered, perhaps, Swed says, because you never knew what Bausch might do to a stage. Dancers could be pounding through several tons of peat covering the floor or sand or 4,000 pink carnations. Or they might swim on a river created on an opera-house stage, or in rain - real water and lots of it. Wim Wenders wanted to capture it all in his documentary, but first he had to find the right way to film dance.

WENDERS: Between dance and film, there was a difficulty. And there was always like an invisible wall. And I couldn't break that wall.

DOWELL: It took him nearly 20 years to find the answer, at a U2 concert film: 3-D.

WENDERS: For the first time, we had a tool as filmmakers that allowed us to actually be in space, be in the same element as the dancers.

DOWELL: The bulky camera and heavy rigs required lots of planning. Wenders says he needed a dinosaur of a crane to film stage performances. By June 2009 he was ready to shoot rehearsals and show Bausch the results. And then, just a few days before the cameras were to roll, the choreographer died. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer less than a week earlier.

WENDERS: And I immediately canceled the film because we had wanted to make this together for 20 years. And the fact there is a film after all, I strictly owe to the dancers. We could no longer make a film with Pina but we realized there was a film to be made for Pina.

DOWELL: He followed her wishes and concentrated on the dances, but he did weave into these the dancers' thoughts about Pina Bausch. We see what he calls silent portraits of the troupe. We hear the performers' interior monologues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PINA")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Meeting Pina was like finding a language, finally. Before, I didn't know how to talk. And then she suddenly gave me a way to express myself, a vocabulary. When I began, I was pretty shy; I still am. And after many months of rehearsing, she called me and said, you just have to get crazier. And that was the only comment in almost 20 years.

DOWELL: Following most of these monologues are short solo or duet performances, set all around Wuppertal: at its famous monorail, in traffic, on slag heaps outside the industrial the city. These sequences were filmed with the lightweight 3-D cameras that became available after 2009. But exactly how to make the technology work for the story he wanted to tell was always Wenders biggest challenge. After all, this was not a sci-fi epic or an action blockbuster.

WENDERS: I figured from the beginning we had to invent a different kind of 3-D, and the film could not be effect-driven, because the attraction of our film was the dance itself and Pina's work, and not the technology with which we shot it. So, I wanted to invent a 3-D that was all natural and was gentle to the eyes, and that you would almost forget after a few minutes. And you'd really forget that you ever saw dance differently.

DOWELL: And just as seeing Pina Bausch perform for the first time changed his life, Wim Wenders says so has 3-D. Filming in 2-D now would seem like returning to something ancient. So, his next film will be a fictional 3-D journey into a family. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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