Schumacher, On Netflix, Is A Lowly Backmarker In A Race Of Speedy Formula One Documentaries, Film Companion

Directors: Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker, Michael Wech
Writers: Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker, Michael Wech
Cinematographers: Reiner Bauer, Ilhan Coskun, Robert Engelke, Johannes Imdahl
Editors: Susanne Ocklitz, Michael Scheffold, Olaf Voigtländer
Streaming on: Netflix

Early on in Schumacher, an old man with an unmistakably famous jawline and bright eyes appears on screen. He looks frail but familiar. For a second, my heart stopped. Is it him? Is this the big reveal? Is this how Michael Schumacher – the fiercely protected Formula One legend who virtually vanished from public view after his near-fatal skiing accident in 2013 – looks today in 2021? Is this the film that ends the best-kept secret in celebrity medical history? I knew that voice. That smile. That concrete neck. We all did. Then he moves, almost in defiance of his much-publicized paralysis. Then his name fades in. Rolf Schumacher. It’s his father. A spitting image straight out of a face-aging app. Rolf speaks of his son, whose surname became an epithet for victory and a metaphor for velocity. By now it becomes clear that Schumacher, the nearly two-hour-long documentary, is pulling a fast one. The ‘authorized biography’ unfurls like a sanitized profile – a tribute to a career we know too much about, and a generic ode to a family man nobody knows enough about. This is Sachin: A Billion Dreams all over again. Except, the subject himself is being spoken about and for. The omissions, of course, tell a bigger story. 


Fully Filmy

I’m not saying Schumacher is obliged to shed light on his current condition. It chooses not to, as per his family’s wishes, which is narratively disappointing but objectively fair. Besides, our curiosity about his health is inherently voyeuristic. We want to know he’s better – for ourselves, not for him. But just because an access-heavy documentary gaze cannot be personal doesn’t mean that the film itself cannot feel personal. The fact is Michael Schumacher transcended his sport, and so his achievements were inextricably linked to our evolution as human beings. For instance, Schumacher to me was the feeling of camaraderie with a select few school friends who swore by a sport not named cricket. He was the strange cumin-like scent of the Parsi-owned bungalow we played F1 on the PlayStation 2 at, where I repeatedly chose to race in a lowly Minardi to replicate Ferrari’s underdog journey. He was the go-kart I crashed on the circuit opposite the Gujarat High Court; the Italian and German national anthems I sang along to with pride; the rum I downed with a college friend in my grandfather’s empty apartment when Fernando Alonso ended his reign in 2005. He was the bond people shared when they had nothing in common. But even as a language of worship and nostalgia, Schumacher is a grammatical nightmare.

For starters, there isn’t much in the documentary that we can’t find on Michael Schumacher’s Wikipedia page. Even if the intent is to introduce the uninitiated F1 viewer to his legacy, the genre is honourably represented by gems like Senna and F1: Drive to Survive. The makers here choose the wrong sport – at least in terms of filmmaking – to construct a hagiography for. They chart an iconic career – from his early days in Jordan and Benetton, his rivalry with Aryton Senna to his fabled Ferrari stint – through the usual talking heads. Former team directors, engineers, teammates, rivals and his tearful wife Corrina paint a portrait of a dangerously driven champion who bridges the gap between man and machine. There’s a sense that each one of them has been briefed about this being a celebration of immortality rather than an exploration of mortality. Most of the archival footage is hardly groundbreaking. The voices that describe his mentality are hardly insightful. And I get it – perhaps this is how they want to remember him. But the problem is so many of us remember so much more. 

For instance, his first Championship win with Ferrari in 2000 is highly dramatized, but it was never as close as the documentary suggests. The Japanese Grand Prix, where he clinched the title, is presented as the final race of the season – it wasn’t. His controversies – his run-ins with Senna, his disqualification in 1997 – are merely glided over in service of his uncompromising vision. When fellow drivers like David Coulthard, Eddie Irvine, Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen speak about him, it’s clear they have more to say about his “ruthlessness,” but they’re holding back out of respect for the occasion. In some sense, Schumacher is an intensely safe reminder of how a champion risked everything to reach the top of his sport. But it is hardly an exploration of what made him tick, why he made certain decisions, how he adapted to the dynamics of modern racing, or what he meant to a sport that grew increasingly weary of his domination. It’s a difficult film to dislike or criticize, because it tells us everything we knew and believed without challenging our rose-tinted perceptions. 

Most of the archival footage is hardly groundbreaking. The voices that describe his mentality are hardly insightful

There are a few notable moments of foreboding in the documentary. Like the interview in which a young Schumacher expresses shock at his hero and title rival Senna’s death in the San Marino Grand Prix. Schumacher admits that he didn’t expect the worst – “a coma is not supposed to be a bad thing,” he repeats – 19 years before he himself went into a coma because of an innocuous ski accident. The irony is damning, and visible to anyone craving to retain their image of the man who rode his luck on the race track. Then there’s the footage of Schumacher winning the British Grand Prix in the mid-90s. He is seen celebrating on the podium while a bemused Princess Diana looks on. Only a few years later, Diana was to perish in a high-speed crash in Paris – which, to the racing eye, looked a lot like the trademark tunnel of the Monaco GP. The opening and end credits feature Schumacher in the cockpit at Monaco, navigating the most popular circuit in the world with alarming precision. 

Yet, despite fleeting signs of narrative intelligence, Schumacher stays at a distance. Somehow, even when son Mick poignantly states that he would trade anything to discuss motorsport with his father – a man who never quite saw his child rising through the ranks to reach the inner echelons of F1 – Schumacher looks incredibly closed, cold and ultra-planned. If the idea was to reflect the man himself, the documentary does its job. Perhaps it was a losing battle to begin with. It’s tough to be honest about a person who is in no position to be revealed. On some days, it’s a tribute. On others, it’s a eulogy. 

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