Bausch, or Pina to everyone who knew her, died in 2009, just as Wenders was about to begin shooting a movie about her and her work.
What was planned as a documentary became something else: the world's first 3D art house film and Wenders' true testimonial to the woman many credit with revolutionizing the art of dance.
The film, Germany's official entry for the 2012 foreign language Oscars and a frontrunner in the best documentary category as well, is the culmination of an obsession with Pina's work that Wenders says began the moment he saw Bausch's Tanztheater in 1984.
"I saw the first piece of Pina's and immediately saw five more — I saw everything she did," he says. "I'd seen some classical dance, but I was always bored. Here was something completely different. Even calling it modern dance is inappropriate. She created the word tanztheater, dance theater. What she does is plays where the acting is done by dancers."
Bausch's work is, on the surface, worlds away from the films of the German auteur. Although her pieces often contain snatches of dialogue — itself scandalous for classical-dance purists — there is no discernable narrative. Wenders had done documentaries, but the subject — in "Buena Vista Social Club" and "The Soul of Man"— was always music. In his huge body of work, there are no overt references to dance.
But from the moment he saw it, Wenders knew Bausch's Tanztheater belonged on the big screen. The only problem was, the director of "Paris," "Texas" and "Wings of Desire" had no idea how to do it.
"It became a running joke," Wenders says. "She'd say, 'Wim, when are you doing that movie on me?' and I'd say, 'Pina, I don't know how.' "
The problem was space. Imagine shooting a dance performance: Where do you put the camera? Do a close-up of a single dancer, and you miss what's going on behind, in front of and beside them. Pull back for a wide shot, and the scene flattens out; you can see everyone, but the emotion is gone. And Pina's dances are emotional to the core.
"The more I got to know her work, the less I thought I was able to shoot it in a way that was valid," Wenders says.
Then, in 2006, he saw an early cut of the groundbreaking digital concert film "U2 3D" in Cannes.
"It was the first 3D film, the first to use this new technology," Wenders says. "I called Pina from the screening. I said, 'Now I know how.' "
3D might have solved the problem of space, but when Wenders did his first tests, there was another problem: movement. In 2006, the best 3D cameras still had difficulty capturing rapid motion. There was a shuttering effect: A dancer running across the stage would suddenly seem to have three legs or four arms.
"Even in 'Avatar,' if you look at the original, real-life footage — not the stuff done in computer — you realize it is less elegant, clunky," he says. "Four years ago, the technology couldn't handle natural movement. So we had to wait."
By summer 2009, the technology had advanced to the point where they could start. Then Pina died of cancer in her home town of Wuppertal. She was 68.
"I had dinner with her eight days before she was taken from us," he says, his voice catching. "She looked tired. We all thought she was exhausted, which with Pina was a constant state. She checked in to the hospital for what we thought was a routine examination. Five days later, she was dead."
Wenders immediately canceled the film. How could he continue without a single second of footage with his protagonist? He had planned to follow Pina around the world and chronicle her unconventional working method. When developing a performance, she would ask her dancers questions about their characters, and they would answer with gestures and movement. From that, she would build the performance.
It was to be a film about Pina, and Pina was gone. But her worldwide fan base and dance troupe had not given up. They spoke with Wenders, telling him to keep going.
So he did. He and Bausch had selected five plays to perform at Tanztheater. He shot those, then stopped.
"I had to change the entire concept of the film; I had to find a substitute for Pina's presence," Wenders says. "Finally, I realized it had to be the people who knew her best. It had to be the dancers."
Wenders took Pina's method of interrogating her dancers and adapted it to the documentary, but with a twist: He asked them about the choreographer, and they answered with movement. The result is a doc with no narrative and practically no dialogue, but with an emotional power that's hard to deny.
Then, struggling to finish the film in early 2010, he added another wrinkle: Wenders took the dancers offstage and had them perform outside on the streets, in the factories and along the open-faced coal pits of Wuppertal, Pina's hometown.
It was an inspired move. Taking the 3D cameras outside opens up "Pina." The dancers dip and bob on a traffic island as cars zip by. A woman pirouettes onto a hanging rail car. Another moves across the floor of an abandoned mine, struggling under the weight of her male partner.
"3D really thrives on space — the 3D camera loves infinity, the horizon," Wenders says. "It's a shame the 3D most people have seen wasn't shot in the real world but in the studios because it's in the real world where 3D really comes into its own."
The result is arguably the most innovative and powerful film Wenders has made in a decade. "Pina" has already got the nod at the German Film Awards and European Film Awards for best documentary and, judging by the critical response to the film, is probably Wenders' best-ever chance ever to win an Oscar - one of the only major film honors the German auteur has yet to claim. But for Wenders, the only critical opinion that really matters is the one of the woman whose absence fills the screen.
"I would have liked to show it to Pina," he muses, softly. "Of course, that wasn't possible. I only hope it's a proper homage to her by the people who knew and loved her best: her own dancers."
– The Hollywood Reporter