Why Does Netflix’s New Michael Schumacher Documentary Insist on Applying the Brakes?

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Photo credit: Clive Mason
Photo credit: Clive Mason

There is a moment in Schumacher, a new documentary about the legendary – and legendarily tough – German Formula 1 driver Michael, that is unexpectedly tender. It is footage from a press conference at the Italian Grand Prix in 2000. Schumacher, who had just won the race for Ferrari, is flanked by his younger brother Ralf, who had come in third for Williams, and his arch rival Mika Häkkinen, who finished second for McLaren. A question is posed to Schumacher. “This is your 41st victory, which puts you equal second all-time with Ayrton Senna. Do those records mean a lot to you?” Michael looks down at the microphone in front of him. “Yes, it does mean a lot to me,” he replies. Then he lowers his head so that his baseball cap obscures his eyes, whispers “sorry”, and starts to sob.

The incident was a rare glimpse behind the adamantine walls that Schumacher, who won the F1 World Championship seven times before his retirement in 2012, constructed around himself, both to maintain his fiercely guarded privacy and also, one suspects, to hide any signs of weakness. They are walls which one might expect Netflix's new feature-length documentary, directed by Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker and Michael Wech and released with the full support of Schumacher’s family, to attempt to dismantle. Schumacher had a near-fatal skiing accident in 2013 which, scant reports have suggested, has left him unable to walk or talk; if ever there was an opportunity for Schumi fans to get a sense of his life now, or for the uninitiated to be won over, as director Asif Kapadia achieved with the 2010 documentary Senna, it is surely this.

Certainly Schumacher has all the goods: a wealth of archive footage both personal and professional, and interviews with many of the big names of the sport, from Big Bosses like Flavio Briatore and Ross Brawn and even Bernie Ecclestone himself, to the drivers who took Schumacher on and, for the most part, lost, including Damon Hill, David Coulthard, Häkinnen and Mark Webber. There are also contributions from his family: his father Rolf, the aforementioned Ralf, his children Mick and Gina, and his wife, Corinna, whose sweet-natured dedication to her husband is deeply sympathetic, even if it doesn’t produce scintillating anecdotes (the most revealing one is about the time she once read her book on the bog in Japan so he could get a good night’s sleep).

And yet somehow, Schumacher never gets off the start line. There’s the chronological trot-through of his achievements, honing his skills on the family go-karting track, debuting in Formula 1 for Jordan, then Benetton, and his dogged determination to turn Ferrari into a contender – which he of course did – often accompanied by a soaring orchestral score that is both overblown and emotionally unearned. There are the attempts to show what a nice guy he was off the track: he enjoyed Barcardi and coke! He liked to throw people in the swimming pool at parties! (“That was his thing,” says Corinna). But even the personal photographs are frequently of the staged kind – all soft focus and matching pastel knitwear – a projection of a life, but not the life itself.

Then there are the attempts to address the controversies (or, in the case of the accusations made against Benetton in 1994 for the use of illegal traction control, not address them). Schumacher was involved in a couple of high-profile crashes in championship-deciding races: one with Hill in 1994, another with Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. Hill is astonishingly gracious about the tactics that kept him from winning that year’s F1 Championship, while of the Villeneuve incident, for which Schumacher was disqualified from that year’s competition, Ross Brawn only goes so far as to say, “I think he overstepped the mark that day.” Villeneuve, who recently told Corriere dello Sport, “Like in school, there is always someone you will never get along with,” does not appear in the film.

And yet it is a Villeneuve that the film desperately needs. Someone who perhaps couldn’t stand the guy and is respectfully prepared to say so. Because while of course there is another side to Schumacher, and of course his family love him and want to protect him in his current vulnerable state, by skirting over some of his more difficult and unlikeable behaviour, or excusing it as perfectionism or an intense desire to win (a specious quality if ever there was one), the film tries to soften the edges of a character whose very spikiness, the petulant jut of his chin, was key to his appeal. We like our heroes flawed, remember?

And about that Italian press conference. When Schumacher breaks down, it is Mika Häkkinen who is the first to put his arm around him; Ralf, perhaps shocked to see his brother breaking down like this, can only look ahead at first, eyes wide with disbelief. It is Häkkinen who, apparently close to tears himself, asks the assembled press if they could take a break. It is Häkkinen who shows softness and sympathy. It is Häkkinen who, we can see, has a human side.

Schumacher, indeed, does a great deal of telling, and not enough showing. As for how the film addresses his current condition, or even the circumstances of his accident, there are only the most gnomic of allusions. “Michael is here,” says Corinna. “Different, but he is here.” It makes the purpose of the film, too, indistinct at best. What as a fan, or even as a non-fan, are we expected to learn? “The family wanted [the film] to be a gift to him,” says Schumacher's former manager, Sabine Kehm. An entirely understandable wish of course, but one that fails to fully explore the complexities of his legacy for the rest of us.

Schumacher is available on Netflix now

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