A New Dimension in Film 3D Movies Go Arthouse at Berlinale

This year's Berlin International Film Festival broke new ground by featuring 3D movies in its official program for the first time. But instead of effect-packed blockbusters, the movies on show are arthouse works from directors like Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. Is 3D cinema going highbrow?

By David Gordon Smith

A distraught-looking woman with bedraggled hair comes forward, holding out a piece of red cloth toward the viewer. Behind her huddles a group of women in simple white gowns, looking anxious. They are barefoot and are standing on a soil-covered stage.

The scene, from Wim Wenders' new documentary "Pina," is not exactly the kind of thing one would expect to see in a 3D movie, flicks that have so far been associated with animals leaping out of the screen and helicopters zooming around the theater. Until now, it's safe to say, stereoscopic films have been distinguished more by their spectacular effects and typical Hollywood cheese than their subtle storytelling or profound insights into the human condition.

The medium, however, appears poised for a shift into headier fare. For the first time, the Berlin International Film Festival, one of Europe's leading cinema events, is featuring no fewer than three 3D movies in its official program (a fourth 3D film, the futuristic thriller "The Mortician," is showing in the festival's Panorama section). And they have more in common with arty European cinema than Hollywood blockbusters.

"We wanted to discover new forms, which is why we opened up the program to films made in 3D," festival director Dieter Kosslick said at a recent press conference. "These three movies show that you can really play around with 3D in arthouse film."

Although directors are starting to use the technique in independent films and documentaries -- Quebec-based filmmaker Marc Fafard used the process to enhance "Les Ailes de Johnny May" ("The Wings Of Johnny May"), a low-budget documentary about a Canadian aviator that showed at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival -- audiences in recent years have associated 3D mainly with effects-packed big-budget movies, such as James Cameron's "Avatar" and Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland." But the focus on 3D at this year's Berlinale suggests that the technology could be on the verge of gaining wider acceptance.

Using 3D for a Good Reason

Even more surprising is the fact that two of the films have been made by German cinematic legends not usually known for their love of gimmicks, namely Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. In both cases, the directors had specific reasons to embrace the third dimension. Indeed, the films, both of which are documentaries, might never have been made had it not been for digital 3D technology.

Wenders' film "Pina," which had its world premiere at the festival on Sunday, pays moving tribute to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, while Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is a visually stunning exploration of the Chauvet Cave in southern France, home to 30,000-year-old cave paintings that are thought to be the earliest known examples of human art.

Although Herzog had previously been skeptical about 3D filmmaking, he realized that he had to use the technology as soon as he saw the cave. "I knew immediately that it was imperative to shoot in 3D," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He explains that the paintings were not simply made on flat walls. Instead, the artists deliberately incorporated the niches, bulges and protrusions of the cave in their depictions of wild animals. "The effect of the three-dimensionality is phenomenal. It's a real drama which the artists of the time understood, and they used it for the drama of their paintings."

The result is impressive, despite the occasional glitch with the stereoscopic effects due to the extreme conditions under which the film was made. The documentary transports viewers inside the claustrophobic cave, where the rock paintings loom off the screen, every niche and protrusion faithfully rendered. It's a unique scientific and artistic document that makes the audience feel they have actually been inside the cavern, and would have been a poorer movie had it stuck to the conventional two dimensions.

Entering the Dancer's Realm

Wim Wenders, who is best known for "Paris, Texas" (1984) and "Wings of Desire" (1987), was similarly convinced of the need to shoot his documentary in 3D. He had been talking to Pina Bausch about making a film about her work for years, but had been struggling with the challenge of making a film that could adequately document the influential choreographer's innovative dance pieces. "The reason that the film took so long was that I never knew how to do justice to it with my craft of filmmaking," Wenders said.

It was only when he saw his first 3D film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 that he realized how to do it. As he recollects, he called up Bausch straight away and told her he finally knew how to make the film. "Only when the dimension of space was added was I able to enter the dancers' very own realm," he said.

Wenders was about to begin test shooting on the project when Bausch suddenly died in June 2009. The project was initially cancelled, but later revived when the director came up with a new approach. Instead of the interviews with Bausch and tour footage that had originally been planned, the documentary features Bausch's company performing four of her best-known pieces as well as personal tributes to the choreographer from the dancers. They physically express their feelings about Bausch in dance pieces of their own invention, filmed in locations in and around the city of Wuppertal, the post-industrial German city where the choreographer was based.

The 3D approach turns the documentary into an entirely new way of experiencing dance theater. The viewer feels that he or she is right in the middle of the dancers as they run past. In one particularly striking scene, filmed from a first-person perspective, the members of the company appear to be coming right up to the viewer.

"I think 3D is almost tailor made for dance," said Wenders. "I don't know where this new medium would be more appropriate."

'New Toys'

But some directors take a more lighthearted approach to 3D than the German auteurs. French director Michel Ocelot, whose animated film "Les contes de la nuit" ("Tales Of The Night") had its world premiere at the Berlinale on Sunday, said it was an easy decision to shoot the film in 3D. "Why not, I thought," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I like to play with new toys. It's no more serious than that."

Ocelot uses the 3D technology to good effect. The film, which he says is aimed at both arthouse and mainstream audiences, tells a series of adapted fairy tales in the style of a shadow puppet play. As Ocelot readily acknowledges, it owes a clear debt to the groundbreaking 1926 animated film "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" by the German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger, which pioneered the use of shadow silhouettes in cinema.

Unusually for a 3D film, the elements on screen are mostly flat, echoing the different layers of a shadow puppet theater. The characters and sets are represented by black silhouettes popping out in front of vibrantly colored backgrounds in different layers. When Ocelot departs from the convention for the flashier effects typical of 3D cinema, such as a cloud of stars that bursts out of the screen, it is all the more charming. "I like to have simple, delicate things," he says. "With the flat 3D approach, it still stays poetic. It adds a light touch."

The director suspects that 3D may become ubiquitous one day, provided the technology becomes easier to use and special glasses are no longer required. He compares it to the birth of color motion pictures. "When color came in, it was something new. But now you don't even think about the fact that the film is in color."

The Limits of 3D

Despite the embrace of the third dimension at Berlinale, it remains to be seen whether 3D will conquer the world of arthouse cinema. Ocelot emphasizes that the technology is just another tool in the filmmaker's arsenal. True cinema, he says, is all about having a strong narrative. "You cannot base a good love story just on things poking out of the screen."

Werner Herzog is also clear about the limits of the technology. None of the five projects he is currently working on -- such as a documentary about prisoners on death row -- are suitable for the 3D treatment, he says. "I would not completely rule it out in the future. It depends on the subject," he says. "But when you look back at the 60 or so films that I've made so far, there's not a single one which I should have done in 3D."


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BTraven 02/17/2011
Watching a 3D documentary gives you at least the feeling that you do not need to fear to get an heart attack during the performance because the likelihood that some kinds of snakes may it look as sweet as possible appear in just in front of your ears. I think docs are the right genre for 3D. As long as there will be a demand for movies which are shown in old-fashioned way I will continue to go to the cinema. By the way, Germans invented 3D. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/feb/16/nazi-3d-films-discovered http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2011/feb/14/dance-theatre http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/feb/13/pina-review
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