Schumacher on Netflix; Portrait of a legend

A spiritual prequel to Drive to Survive, SCHUMACHER is the latest sports documentary to hit Netflix. Co-directed by Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker, and Michael Wech, and supported by the Schumacher family, the documentary is a visual portrait of the man himself- Michael Schumacher- his personality in Formula One and his life outside of it.

I call this a spiritual prequel to Drive To Survive for several reasons. Often, the old fans and the supporters of motorsports isolate the new fans by the way of sticking an odd fact or trivia from the historical details. The new fans, predominantly, have known the sport through the eyes of social media interaction between the players and then through the archival footage of the races and videos online. What Drive to Survive did insofar as bringing new fans to the sport and introducing them to the politics and the legends of the turbo-hybrid era, SCHUMACHER does the same. It introduces Michael to fans who had probably not hit puberty when he met with his accident after his final retirement from F1. Drive To Survive not only simplified the sport but also made the contemporary history of motorsport accessible to those who had no idea or background and made them into fans. The same is extended by SCHUMACHER in a manner of speaking.

As a relatively new fan of F1, I have seen gatekeeping enough to know that Michael and Senna belong to the side of the hill, that is they are both legends from pre-Turbo Hybrid era racing who have a seemingly mythical quality about their existence. I’ve had the misfortune of interacting with men (largely) who have looked at my history of knowing the sport and dismissed it with, “I have been watching the sport for xx years and you know nothing”. This sort of gatekeeping is also probably the reason why SCHUMACHER, the documentary, is not being appreciated by a section of the audience who grew up watching Michael race year after year.

Old fans will tell you the documentary doesn’t record Alonso snatching the title from under Michael’s nose or his final race in Brazil in 2006 or even his relationship with his long-time teammate Barrichello, before retirement. However, to the new fans and those who joined the bandwagon of following the sport, SCHUMACHER serves the purpose; it humanizes an icon, an absolute legend into two personalities- a ruthless sportsperson with the intent to be nothing but the fastest racing driver and a family man who wants to give his best to those close to him.

There are two ways to deconstruct SCHUMACHER as a documentary. One is to appreciate the family’s choice of coming out with a personal tale of knowing Michael through the years and having his friends and old colleagues go on record to talk about him. The second is to simply disregard it and label the documentary as an exercise in relaying worthless information and a PR activity in introducing new fans to the sport and the legend by whitewashing the image of the sporting icon through his competitive years. Both can co-exist, however, in isolation, the second theory doesn’t stand tall for me.

Despite all the criticism from fans and critics on “no new information”, SCHUMACHER displays a slice of Michael as a thorough gentleman and devoted to his family, to the friendships he extended towards those he knew within the paddock. The documentary talks at length about the professionalism he displayed for years in adding worth to the legacy of Ferrari and F1. Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Pierro Ferrari, Bernie Ecclestone, and drivers including Mark Webber (lolwut) and Sebastian Vettel chime in with their inputs in describing Schumacher as a person; not necessarily always relaying the story of how he becomes a champion but looking at him through a gaze of reverence.

Portions including interviews with David Coulthard, Mika Hakkinen, Damon Hill are all a good watch for they humanize Michael as a competitive spirit, without mincing their words; easily one of the more bingeable parts of the documentary. It’s also somehow heartening to learn and know that Ferrari was a commitment-phobe lover even during Michael's era for they reconsidered their decision for signing on Schumacher over Hakkinen. Vettel, then, stood no chance for their gaze (I’m sorry, I had to; Ferrari destroyed Vettel).

What the documentary fails to convey, however, is how he took his skills and craft into making himself a 7-time world champion. I feel the timeline and following it chronologically impacted the storytelling aspect as the creators relied heavily on making A/Vs, interspersed with archival as well as new interviews. At some point, the documentary becomes more of a Ferrari A/V and a historical film about them than about Michael. While I understand, the fate of Scuderia and Schumacher were interlinked together tightly, you don’t necessarily have to remove your focus from the driver on whom you choose to base the documentary. I feel I came out of the stream knowing how exactly Ferrari re-invented themselves, more than knowing how Schumacher achieved the GOAT status he enjoys to this day.

The last 20 minutes of the film slap; it hurts and how. Watching Corinna and her kids talk about Michael and the years post his accident and sharing limited information conveys how much they value privacy, no easy feat at a time like this in the world, when no information is sacred or held to secrecy in the manner they have done. Mick talks about his dad and how he would be willing to forego everything just to be able to have a conversation with his dad in a language they both understand (“Motorsport”). Watching Mick's eyes as he says the line and the lump in his throat that he's resisting can make any grown man cry.

The “update” that people seek on Schumacher is unavailable in a manner people expect. There are no recent photographs or footage of Michael. Instead, you learn how Michael almost went ahead with sky-diving in Dubai only to skip that and go to the French Alps. The family protects him, the way he protected them, Corinna tells us; a heavy statement that is certainly well within reasonable demands from his family. Michael preferred privacy and they want to maintain that. I am gobsmacked with the reactions of those around me angry, expecting more than what the family shared. They are under no moral obligation to let the world know or show his appearance today, especially after him having undergone the medical hell he did over the years. Spare a thought for them and imagine someone wanting to make that about a member of your family. It's cruel to demand more than the family is willing to share and review the documentary basis that.

The documentary is filled with tender moments, and you might miss them if you watch it in a haste. Michael talking about Senna’s accident in Imola in 1994 and referring to how being in a coma can mean so many things is one of those moments which leaves you in a state of, “well, fuck”. It’s almost as if, the story wrote itself, both the legends enjoyed tremendous success and yet aren’t here to see their legacy being taken forward in motorsport. Michael may have broken Senna’s record yet Senna’s demise deeply impacted him. The circle of life comes through between Schumacher and Senna, as somehow, conveyed in the film. In a manner of speaking, one legend passed the baton to the other, and with Michael to Sebastian and Lewis and now perhaps with Lewis and Max, the story continues.

Sure, SCHUMACHER does not do justice to Michael, the competitive figure, Michael the father or the friend, yet it’s a good introduction to the man who’s only known to the new fans as a “7-time world champion” a record he first claimed and now shares with Sir Lewis Hamilton. This isn’t a great documentary by any yardstick but it’s an important retelling of events; sure it absolves Michael of all wrongdoings and errors he may have committed knowingly or unknowingly in his career, yet the footage of his family, the interviews extended by his friends and other drivers make this an impactful watch for all new fans.

It’s definitely on the loose side of re-telling as it involves little technical aspect of F1 cars and driving, making the film enjoyable for even those who have no interest in the sport. I would have preferred detailed insight into what made Michael so good at what he did, and less of who was leading in points, I mean, it all seemed like a historical version of Drive to Survive, that begets the question- do we even know who Michael is or are we watching a PR version of his profile and life? A lot to wonder about and a lot to experience. Don't skip, instead, play and let the tears roll down.

The documentary is available for streaming on Netflix in India.

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.