Up to now, 3-D in film has been an enterprise largely extraneous to the character of film itself: moviedom's version of the 10,000 love-fattened cherubs overwhelming the interior of a baroque church. Objects within traditional 2-D framing are thrust pointlessly at the viewer, announcing themselves often at the cost of engagement and suspended disbelief. Even in Werner Herzog's stunning Cave of Forgotten Dreams this past year, the lushly tactile projections of cave drawings were a surface spectacle of gee-whiz wonder, much like the HD in the Discovery Channel's Planet Earth animal documentaries: One marvels at the object and then at its unlikely, otherworldly rendering.

German auteur Wim Wenders' Pina—an elegiac documentary about the work of late, iconoclastic Berlin choreographer Pina Bausch—is something else altogether, a brokenhearted Billie Holiday to the 3-D form's usual emptily virtuosic Ella Fitzgerald. "I'm not interested in how people move," Bausch has famously said. "I'm interested in what makes them move." In Wenders' film, the viewer is placed not only inside the space of that movement but into the feeling that animates it. Pina is, in fact, the most emotionally affecting film I saw last year.

This is achieved, nonetheless, with a quite formal awareness of the medium—one that Wenders shares with the viewer. As the film opens, we are placed first in a curtained theater that is largely contiguous with the movie house we're already in, and then pass gently across a diaphanous stage scrim to share the stage with the dancers themselves, who are performing Bausch's violent, visceral Rite of Spring on a carpet of richly color-saturated soil.

Whenever 2-D archival footage is shown, it is witnessed from the vantage of that same curtained theater, a constant reminder that the past is a world we cannot enter. But this also convincingly sets up the 3-D stage as an actual, near-tangible reality; we are asked at every turn to accept it as such, and the highly physical medium of dance does uniquely lend itself to treatment in three dimensions.

The film is resolutely plotless, I should mention, and it shows only passing interest in any sort of biography and none whatsoever in demystification; viewers expecting explicit understanding or narrative or even halfhearted explanation instead of homage will be disappointed. Rather than illuminate Bausch's singular art, the film attempts—and largely succeeds—to inhabit it through enactment of some of Bausch's most famous works, including her tour de force Café Müller, and in impromptu performances out in the world of people and things: on populated trains and in empty stations, in tennis courts and on cliff tops. Bausch's "dance theater" always existed in an inhabited world, after all, her stages filled with boulders and chairs and endless cascades of water.

And Bausch's dancers—like the forlorn bar and whorehouse singers in John Cassavetes' Faces or Husbands—always seem to be acting out of both whimsy and desperation at the same time. There are, for example, the exhausted performers who suddenly, surprisingly squirt water they've been carrying in their mouths into each others' faces, and the woman who wears shoes full of meat. Or—in a staging I believe to be Wenders' own—a procession of every living person Bausch has ever worked with doing a gently snaking conga to Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" atop an endless sand dune.

It was a funeral procession, surely, but terribly full of life. Wenders' film about his longtime friend was begun before her death and so was not originally meant as an elegy, but in retrospect the film has now become much the same thing: a wake that succeeds in bringing the dead around for one last dance. 

95 SEE IT: Pina is rated PG. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.