From a Jewish point of view, the Oscar nominees announced this week gave a lot to be excited about. There was Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar’s nomination for best foreign film, with “Footnote,” about an intellectual feud between father and son, both Talmudic scholars. There was “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about 9/11. And there was “In Darkness,” another nomination for best foreign film, from Poland, dealing with the Holocaust.
I was excited about all that myself. But a couple of days before the awards were announced, I saw “Pina,” Wim Wenders eulogy, shot in stunning 3D, to his long-time friend, the modern dance icon Pina Bausch. (She died from cancer in 2009, at 68.) My enthusiasm for the movie had nothing to do with Judaism—it simply confirmed for me that 3D can do wonders for movies other than blockbusters. The only other independent director whose made a film using 3D—Werner Herzog, with his film from last year “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” about the 20,000 year old cave paintings in Southern France—was also stunning.
But “Pina” upped the ante, and it had a lot to do with the fact that it focused on live people, not static paintings, all of them who moved wonderfully. What strikes you immediately about the film is how, even if you’ve never heard of Pina Bausch, the 3D cinematography captures subtle differences in perspective—people closer to you, others further back—and with a crispness that feels like 40/20 vision. This is probably obvious to anyone who’s’ seen “Avatar,” but the capabilities of 3D filming can be obscured by the sheer marvel of modern-day special effects. Watching dance on film, however, accentuates the enormous potential for 3D, and my only hope is that more indie filmmakers will consider it now as a serious option.
Now about the Jewish angle: in short, there’s none. Or at least there’s none that’s obvious in “Pina.” The film is devoid of narrative and focuses mainly on dance-pieces, spliced with the occasional Pina-and-me story told by a company dancer. But if you use the film as an occasion to find out more about Bausch’s storied career—a game-changer in modern dance, who contemporized the visceral shock and dramatic intensity that nearly died with Martha Graham—you’d find that Pina’s path crossed not infrequently with Jews. She was, after all, German. And because of that, her first mentor, Kurt Jooss, an expressionist choreographer in Essen in the 1920s, had a very noble past. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Jooss refused to fire his company’s Jewish dancers, and was forced to flee the country because of it.
Bausch, who was born in 1940, eventually came under Jooss’ tutelage in the 1960s. But when she went on to Juilliard, she befriended a few Jewish dancers. One, an Israeli student Rina Schenfeld, became a best friend, and they continued to work together as their careers developed, Pina’s in Germany, Schenfeld’s in Israel. “We became like sisters,” Schenfeld said not long ago, after Pina’s death. Over the years, Bausch continued to bring her company to Israel and had a major influence on the country’s strong but superb dance scene. It’s no wonder: the dark and moody intensity of her work—which some critics denounced as all suffering, no beauty; “the pornography of pain,” as Arlene Croce put it—jived with Israel’s then-emerginig style. If you look at Israel’s most famous choreographer, Ohad Naharin, you see a similar spirit of animal intensity animating their work. But there’s better examples; for me, Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak’s Dance Company immediately comes to mind. Both Bausch’s work and theirs evoke the mordant comedy of Weimar Germany, always wrapped in dejection.
Still, there’s much beauty in Bausch’s work. And even though she’s gone, her gifts get new light in Wender’s remarkable film.