For over a decade, one name was synonymous with the very heights of motorsport: Michael Schumacher. From inauspicious beginnings in German kart racing all the way to his monumental run in Formula 1, Schumacher was a major, and oft controversial, figure in the car, but this part of his life sometimes hid his role as a husband and a father. Now, eight years after the tragic accident that has left him out of the public eye, his family and three filmmakers have come together to tell his story.
I first got into motorsport in the late nineties, so I know all about Schumacher. For me, head over heels with the black and white of McLaren Mercedes and the Irish tinge of yellow on the Jordan cars, Schumacher and that glaring red Ferrari were the great Satan: everything that was wrong and sometimes boring with Formula 1, and a man whose every defeat was celebrated like a victory for me. His period of dominance was my first disillusionment with Formula 1, and it would be many years before I came to appreciate the man and what he accomplished from a more mature perspective. I don’t know if Michael Schumacher is the greatest Formula 1 driver ever – like Lewis Hamilton, Schumacher won most of his world titles in a car so far ahead of every other one on the track that it said more about the unevenness in the sport than the individual driver – but he is a vital part of Formula 1 history, and deserving of a great expose of his life and times.
This documentary has been something many have awaited with baited breath since it was first announced a few months ago, and to get the dull business of whether it is any good or not out of the way, well, it’s not. Netflix’s Schumacher is a family-endorsed hagiography, that I feel does not do justice to the kind of multi-faceted personality that Michael Schumacher was. This is a film with a subject renowned for his crossing of lines when inside a motorcar, but here he gets excused for such dangerous activities, before being praised for everything else about his life ad nauseum. Like those musical biopics that are made with the help of the musicians in question, Schumacher is uninterested in anything approaching an actual critique of the person in the title. It’s stock footage with talking heads and all the greatest hits of Schumacher’s life, and we just won’t spend that much time on Australia 1994 or European 1997 or the dull-as-dishwater Ferrari domination he led between 2000 and 2004. This took three directors and three-and-a-half years to make apparently, and the best they could come up with for insight was that Schumacher was nice to the Ferrari head chef.
Instead of examining that aspect of things, we need to talk about the film’s last ten minutes. This is the moment where Schumacher can really make a statement, as it comes to the inevitable discussion of the subject’s current status. What we get is a very short, and very vague, series of inferrals from family members about just what Schumacher’s condition is, that will satisfy nobody hoping for some kind of insight. If you were one of the few people who had no idea what happened to Schumacher in 2013, you’d be left scratching your head by the conclusion here. The delicate tightrope walking act extends to aerial shots of the slope where Schumacher had his accident, without anyone deigning to inform us exactly what happened. I would compare this to the idea of Asif Kapedia making his magnum opus on Arton Senna, and deciding to spend just a few minutes before credits on the man’s death and what it meant.
I am not some kind of voyeur for famous individuals undergoing presumably dire medical circumstances. Michael Schumacher is entitled to his privacy, and I am not suggesting that he be wheeled out to be gawked at by every Netflix subscriber going. But you can’t choose to make a film about the man’s life, and his family can’t choose to be involved, and then present this wishy-washy summation of what constitutes seemingly the last chapter of his life. It’s simply too important. We remain ignorant of what quality of life Schumacher is currently able to enjoy, what mobility he has, if he still is the man who won all those World Championships. Schumacher presents a Wikipedia summary of the man’s career, and then cuts off the part that could actually have elevated it to a higher tier of documentary. It may sound harsh, but there is a certain amount of artistic cowardice in that: Schumacher is a film where the directors – and with three of them, there may well be a “too many cooks” problem – are so chained to the idea of respecting the subject they do not respect the audience. This documentary really appears to serve little purpose.
I would be very interested in a documentary about Michael Schumacher being made without the approval of the family by someone willing to ask some harder questions about his career, if they are unable to offer any new information about Schumacher today. Senna provided new insight and asked important questions about the nature of the sport the titular man was so intimately involved with, and did not shy away from the more controversial moments: it’s a much better effort than Schumacher, that unfolds as if the filmmakers are walking on eggshells. Schumacher, his triumphs, his mistakes, his tragedies, deserved better than this. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).