German director Wim Wenders has always been interested in collaboration. He’s written scripts with such authors as Sam Shepard and Peter Handke, worked with musicians as diverse as U2 and the Buena Vista Social Club and co-directed a film with one of his cinematic forbears, Michelangelo Antonioni. Yet his new 3-D dance documentary, “Pina,” comes as a surprise — even to him.
“I wasn’t really into dance,” Wenders says. “Actually, not at all. I had to be dragged to it. I resisted as long as possible. My girlfriend at the time said, ‘You have to see this.’ I said, ‘No, I definitely do not have to see this.’ ”
But he went to a retrospective of choreographer Pina Bausch’s work, and “it did change my life. I never thought dance could possibly do that to me.”
“I was never able to warm up to classical ballet,” says the filmmaker by phone from New York. “And a lot of modern dance also escapes me. Pina opened this world to me. She invented a whole new art form called ‘dance-theater,’ and that is still what I’m mostly interested in.
“When I saw Pina’s first pieces, my body understood it, and I loved it. It actually said something about us, who we are, where we come from and how we feel.”
Wenders’s epiphany occurred in Venice in 1985, and a year later the filmmaker and choreographer met in her home base, Wuppertal, a small industrial German city. They discussed making a film, but the planning went slowly. In 2009, as shooting was finally about to start, Bausch died of cancer that been diagnosed just five days earlier.
“The concept for the film we wanted to do together was of course obsolete,” Wenders recalls. “As a result of Pina’s sudden passing away, which was unimaginable for us, I pulled the plug. Only weeks later, because of the dancers, I realized that maybe there was a film to be made without Pina. For Pina.”
The movie they developed includes some talking-heads footage, but it’s mostly dance, filmed in the theater, the city — including its most famous feature, an 112-year-old monorail system — and the surrounding countryside. Bausch and her dancers had made one film, 1990’s “The Complaint of the Empress,” and it was shot outdoors. So when the director took the camera outside, “it was as if Pina had suggested it herself.”
Moving into the street “was something the dancers and I discovered together,” Wenders says. “That if we wanted to make a film without Pina, but about her work, we couldn’t just do it on the stage. Because Pina’s inspiration was out in the world. Her inspiration was the city where she lived, and the industrial landscape around it.”
Bausch was closely tied to the region. She was born in Solingen, near Wuppertal, and became the director of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet in 1973. A few months later, she remade it as the Tanztheater, or Dance Theater.
“It was a scandal at the time,” says Wenders. “The first pieces that Pina mounted in Wuppertal, they had to call the police. People were so upset. Booing and slamming doors and walking out. But a few years later Wuppertal started to love Pina. In the last 10 years, if she brought a new play, people stood in line for days to get in. It is really the city’s only claim to fame in the 21st century.”
Wenders suggests that “Pina could not have done this body of work in a big city. Not Berlin or Paris, London or New York. But Wuppertal completely left Pina alone. It’s not a pretty town. It’s like many cities from the industrial revolution that were big in the 19th century. Actually, Wuppertal is quite depressed now. But Pina always said, ‘That is my town. This is where I belong. This is where my work has its roots.’ ”
The first film the director made after encountering Bausch’s work was one of his most acclaimed, “Wings of Desire.” He calls it “by far the most choreographed film I ever did. I couldn’t consciously point out that it was influenced, here and here and there, by Pina. But the film as a whole was inspired by all the little things I discovered in Pina.”
Wenders has documented the work of many sorts of artists, from fellow filmmakers to the elderly Cuban musicians of “Buena Vista Social Club” and Japanese fashion designer Yoji Yamamoto in “Notebook on Cities and Clothes.” He does such films, he says, because “the creative process is one of the last great adventures left. I’m interested in where other creative people get their inspiration, and how their minds work. How they use life, and common experiences, in order to create. Different arts, underneath, have a lot in common. But you have to find it.”
The director’s new path to such discoveries is 3-D, used with grace and unexpected subtlety in “Pina.” Although some consider the format a gimmick, Wenders is “entirely hooked. I have to tell you that I not going back.”
“There’s nothing better than being able to do something for the first time,” he says. “Because after a while, you think you know your craft. That’s the biggest danger. You start doing things because you’re good at it, and you know how to do it. For ‘Pina,’ I did not know how to do it all. And that was . . . fantastic.”
Opens Friday, Feb. 3 at AMC Georgetown and AMC Rio.