Tim Adler is a contributor to AwardsLine

Watching Pina, Wim Wenders’ 3D documentary about the abrasive-tender, jaunty-tormented work of choreographer Pina Bausch, it is ironic that the Oscars has only ever recognized this master German filmmaker for his documentaries. Buena Vista Social Club was nominated for an Oscar in 2000. And now Pina is up for the Documentary Feature Academy Award on February 26. Of course, there has been a non-fiction line throughout Wenders’ career. He started taking documentary photographs at age 7, and has made feature-length documentaries since 1980. Wenders himself says his fiction films have a documentary feel, while his documentaries always have a fairy-tale aspect to them — the Cinderella story of Cuban street musicians working as shoeshine boys elevated to playing Carnegie Hall in Buena Vista Social Club being a case in point.

Actually, there’s a double irony here: Not only is Wenders, director of such seminal European arthouse movies as Wings of Desire and Paris Texas, most feted these days for documentaries but they are documentaries about other artists, arguably those with an even stronger artistic drive than his own: Willie Nelson, Ry Cooder and Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu are some of the artists he has made films about. There is a sense among people who have worked with him that his days as an auteur filmmaker ranking alongside such greats as Ingmar Bergman or Michelangelo Antonioni may be behind him, and that he has settled into the second division. His last fiction film, Palermo Shooting, was booed when it played in competition at Cannes in 2008. Critics described it as “excruciating” and “inconsequential” and an on-screen dedication to “Ingmar and Michelangelo” only fuelled catcalls in the Grand Palais.

If Wenders’ fiction career has sputtered, there is no denying how Pina has rejuvenated him. The documentary has grossed $12 million worldwide to date. He has talked about only making films in 3D from now. For too long, he says, 3D has been the preserve of cynical Hollywood blockbusters. All movie documentaries will be filmed three-dimensionally, he has predicted, and he is developing another 3D docu about architecture. Deepak Nayar, who has produced three of Wenders’ movies, says: “He’s true to what he wants to do rather than sell out. That’s what makes him an auteur.”

Building design is just one of Wenders’ interests: He has also been an engraver, philosopher and painter – and is currently writing a novel. “He’s a true polymath, a director who’s interested in music, dance, performance and fine art,” one admirer says. And his long association with the music scene, directing videos for U2 and Taking Heads, means he is that rarest of creatures: a rock’n’roll intellectual.

Opinion is divided as to what he is like personally. “Pleasant in a slightly cool way,” sums up one friend. “He’s very funny. He cracks me up,” Nayar says. Unlike some European masters of his generation, he is not snobbish or unapproachable “although he is conscious of his own position,” says one distributor. Vain, self-indulgent and in love with himself, carps another colleague. Whatever the truth of this is, Wenders is certainly loved by those who work with him. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, in demand for Hollywood blockbusters (Knight and Day), has turned down better-paying gigs to work with him. And, in a world which is so often what-can-you-do-for-me-today, Wenders remains loyal to past collaborators. When he throws parties, he often invites people he hasn’t worked with for more than a decade. “That defines a person,” Nayar says. “Even at his budget level of auteur filmmaking, he works democratically.” There is no doubting his popularity on the film festival circuit. “When you’re with Wim, suddenly you can get in everywhere,” laughs producer Nigel Thomas, who produced the portmanteau film Ten Minutes Older.

Although his longevity is appreciated in his homeland, he is not regarded as a national treasure. He has been kept away from the levers of power distributing state funding to other filmmakers. And he has found it increasingly difficult to raise money out of Germany itself. Partly, it’s because the market for the kind of films Wenders makes has shrunk: the days when he could raise $23 million to make Until the End of the World (1991) ($830,000 domestic B.O.) are long gone. Today Wenders can only hope to raise $3-4 million out of Europe’s subsidy system. He made Land of Plenty in 2004 with Michelle Williams for just $500,000.

Also, his slightly cool, dispassionate films have made him – and his refusal to please an audience – go out of fashion. Once the Berlin Wall came down, Germany busied itself with construction and reunification; the space for public intellectuals like Wenders got smaller. He is not part of the zeitgeist anymore. Wenders says: “A track record doesn’t really count for anything. It’s easier to get a film funded as a first-time director than if you’re an old hand like me.”

Anyone would agree that Wings of Desire and Paris Texas were groundbreaking in their time, but these have been exceptions rather than the rule. Critics say his films are pretentious. There is a nagging sense among those who have followed his career that at times this particular Emperor – and Wenders is noted for his flamboyant fashion sense – may not be wearing any clothes at all. “People had written Wim off,” Nayar says, “but with Pina he’s come back strongly.”

(Wenders photo: Getty Images)