If you’ve been holding out on watching Schumacher, the new Netflix documentary that follows the life and career of iconic Formula One driver Michael Schumacher, until you knew it was good, then take this as your sign. Stop what you’re doing, and go turn it on right now. Because it isn’t just good. It’s a great tale of the myths we build around our heroes.
Schumacher is a 112-minute Netflix documentary about the man in question, and it’s special for several reasons. In a world of docuseries and sagas stretched out among countless episodes that delve into the minutiae of the subject’s life, Schumacher keeps it simple. This is a human story, the story of a man who became a myth and who was subsequently brought back down to the mortal plane by a horrifying accident.
Schumacher doesn’t linger on his success, which I think is the thread of genius that really makes this documentary shine. After he won his first World Championship, the world learned who Michael Schumacher was, and year by year, his legend steadily grew. Each Championship further solidified the legacy that drivers will attempt to rival for decades to come. We don’t need that part.
Directors Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker, and Michael Wech did a fantastic job bringing together Schumacher’s story. The documentary opens with footage of Schumacher skydiving, then blends seamlessly into driving footage with a Schumacher quote laid on top of it.
I’ve read some criticisms of this documentary that argue it never successfully achieved a deep, prying look into Schumacher’s life the same way a film like Senna did — but I want to argue that that’s not the point here. Ayrton Senna was a legend in his own day, but the rampant mythmaking that accompanied his legacy was largely done after his death. It’s a much different story when the subject of your documentary is still alive but unable to advocate for himself.
“Private is private,” Corinna, Schumacher’s wife, says near the end of the documentary. “Michael always protected us, and now we are protecting Michael.”
The mythmaking in Schumacher, then, comes from that perspective. The man had controversies and enemies, most of which are addressed in the documentary — but no one is exactly clambering to shit on Schumacher on camera. Even Senna, a documentary that many other reviewers are comparing Schumacher to, had its own Senna-heavy spin that painted him as the flawed-but-still-desirable protagonist and rivals like Prost as the dowdy antagonists.
Legacies of men like Schumacher or Senna are hard ones to untangle. These are men who made their names with behavior that was, at many times, unnecessarily aggressive. They could be dickheads. And I do agree that more of these conflicts could be explored in Schumacher, because his desire to push past the boundaries of the sport in order to win at any cost is fascinating. It’s part of his draw. But I also understand the hesitation to prod the sore spots. That wouldn’t leave a particularly good taste in anyone’s mouths.
I did have one other sticking point with this film: Schumacher’s accident is alluded to only in the vaguest of terms. I actually had to rewind the documentary to make sure that I wasn’t imagining anything, that I really didn’t hear anything about it. But there’s very little. Schumacher, race fans know, suffered a severe brain injury in a skiing accident in Méribel, France on December 29, 2013. Since then, Schumacher has not walked nor talked. These are not morbid details; these are the simple facts of the accident. And yet the location is mentioned, as is an accident. And that’s all.
I understand a desire for delicacy, but I’ve always been a proponent of saying the hard parts out loud. There’s no need to dwell, but audiences do need to know the cold, hard facts of what took place in order to understand the gravity of the situation. New F1 fans — those who may not know much of the history — or people just looking to watch a good documentary are going to be left Googling what happened, which is exactly what you don’t want your audience to be doing. This is the climax of the story, the moment where everything changes. You want them riveted to the screen with a reasonable understanding of exactly what’s at stake.
Especially because it’s the most emotionally-charged part of the film. Due to the accident, we’re deprived of firsthand accounts of Schumacher’s life from the man himself. We have to rely on stories from his competitors or his family to understand what happened throughout his career, but we’re never privy to what went on in Michael Schumacher’s head. That was his story to tell.
Now, Schumacher’s wife and children are the arbiters of his story. Schumacher is now most readily reflected through them. And it’s hard to watch his wife Corinna say, “I have never blamed God for what happened. It was just really bad luck, all the bad luck anyone can have in life. It’s always terrible when you say, ‘Why is this happening to Michael or us?’ But then why does it happen to other people?” It’s hard to hear F1 rookie Mick Schumacher musing, “I think dad and me, we would understand each other in a different way now. Simply because we speak a similar language, the language of motorsport. And that we would have much more to talk about. That’s where my head is most of the time. Thinking that would be so cool... I would give up everything just for that.”
These statements are heartbreakers, but they’re also ones that need a context. Viewers are deprived of that context.
Those criticisms don’t make this a bad documentary. On the contrary, Schumacher is excellent — as long as you know that this isn’t the faithful retelling of a man’s life, nor is it a critical analysis of an icon’s career, where the bad is given as high a priority as the good.
Rather, Schumacher is about myth. It’s the story of how one boy from a working-class family grew up to become an unprecedented seven-time Formula One World Champion and then, later, lost so much color from his life in an equally unprecedented holiday accident. It’s the story of the boy who built karts from scrap parts, who later rebuilt the Ferrari F1 team from the ground up. It touches on his lows, but it prioritizes the highs. It notes his flaws, but these are not so much an Achilles heel — the kind of flaw that will bring about your downfall — as they are a blemish that can be transformed into a charming feature with the right lighting. It’s a story of how a family rallies around its fallen patriarch and continues to elevate his story in the absence of an ability to do so for himself. And for that, Schumacher shines.