3D project receives its world premiere on Feb 12 in the Berlinale Special sidebar.

Three years ago, Wim Wenders presented his homage to the legendary choreographer Pina Bausch in the 3D feature documentary Pina as an out of competition screening in the Berlinale Competition.

He is now back at the Berlinale with another 3D project, Cathedrals of Culture, in the Berlinale Special sidebar (world premiere on Feb 12), in collaboration with five other film-makers who all pose the question: “If buildings could talk, what would they say about us?”

While Wenders did not have far to go to portray the Berlin Philharmonic in his film, Austria’s Michael Glawogger travelled to St Petersburg for the Russian National Library and Denmark’s Michael Madsen picked the ground-breaking Halden Prison in Norway.

The Salk Institute in California’s La Jolla came under the spotlight of actor-director-producer Robert Redford, while Norwegian film-maker Margreth Olin chose the Opera House in Oslo and Brazil’s Karim Ainouz - in this year’s Competition with his latest feature Praia do Futuro - followed a day in the life of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

As Wenders explains in an exclusive interview with Screen, the choice of directors was made by the producers Gian-Piero Ringel and Erwin M. Schmidt at Neue Road Movies and the editorial line for the six films was defined by a 3D video installation, If Buildings Could Talk, he had made for the Architecture Biennale in Venice.

Buildings speak for themselves

“With Cathedrals of Culture, we wanted to reverse the traditional narrative perspective of architecture films and develop a new access to these amazing buildings by letting them speak for themselves,” he says. “We wanted to explore their soul, not architectural facts.”

“One of the main goals of the project was to explore 3D as a visual language, and to allow a group of different filmmakers to make use of this medium in their very own way. If there were any particular challenges, then mostly the conceptual difficulty to create six different films by six directors about six different buildings, and still let them share a basic idea and belong together and form a unity.”

Deciding on the Berlin Philharmonic for his episode was “a short and sweet process,” he recalls. “I wanted to cover a building in Berlin. And I wanted to have an emotional access to it. I wanted to do justice to the building. But the more I got to know it, the more complex it became to me. Every day, I saw new aspects of it, and in the end, after five days of shooting, I felt I had only scratched the surface.”

“A lot of buildings are exciting for a while, and then they lose some of their attraction, because they are very much a product of their time, after all,” Wenders continues.

“That goes for the Berlin Philharmonic as well, partly - it was built in the early Sixties - but it managed to capture something timeless as well. Maybe because its architect had to wait for so long to turn his vision into reality- he was considered a “degenerate artist” during the Nazi regime – but also because as its very core it contained a truly groundbreaking concept: to put the orchestra into the middle of the room! That had never been done for a 20th century concert hall.”

“Other buildings have been built since then following the same ideas, but the Berlin Philharmonic was a first of its kind. The political and cultural currents of that era in Berlin allowed for such a new departure. The building defined modernity from scratch, and that you can’t take away from it, even 50 years later.”

Redford “obviously intrigued”

When Wenders then called Robert Redford to join the project, the veteran actor-director was “obviously intrigued by the idea of making a film about a building that speaks to you.”

Speaking exclusively to Screen, he says that he considered the I.M. Pei-designed National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, “but then everything came together when I thought of the Salk Institute [of Biological Studies] because I had grown up nearby and remember seeing the building being constructed.”

“When I looked at the archival footage of the architect Louis I. Kahn and Jonas Salk, I could see what brilliant men they were and how they came together to create this iconic building,” Redford explains.

“That became the heart of my film; and the fact that the building is full of geometric angles except for the space going through the middle into infinity in the sea.”

Romanticising the angles

“I wanted to try and romanticise these angles and also see how the inside and outside of the building came together. When I started interviewing the scientists, the project took on a life of its own because I realised that the connection between them and the building was much deeper than I ever expected. I could see that there was an organic relationship: the scientists were part of the building and the building was part of their work.“

Apart from Wenders and Madsen, the other film-makers invited to participate on Cathedrals of Culture had had no prior of filming in 3D, but Redford stresses that, for him, shooting in 3D was “to complement the basic concept rather than being the sole reason”.

“The reason I chose Ed Lachman as cinematographer was that he has an experimental side, he is not afraid to try anything and this would be a challenge which he would jump at,” Redford adds. “Being a challenge for both of us would be a good adventure and it was a very productive relationship.”

3D not a secret science 

“3D is not a secret science, and we were not a conspiracy,” Wenders continues. “It’s a tool that is available today to all filmmakers, except that there seems to be this inhibition threshold to get near it.

“Once you taste it, and start working with it, you catch the virus easily. There are various notions how to deal with space and depth, and we tried to make these films according to Alain Derobe’s ‘Natural Depth Method’ which had already been the basis of my first exposure to 3D on Pina.”