There is without doubt a fascinating story to be told about Michael Schumacher and his racing career. But the documentary released on Wednesday on Netflix has a different Schumacher taking the narrative attention. It is his wife Corinna and her honest emotion and singular insights into her husband’s life and character that largely make up for what the film is lacking in analysis or comment on Schumacher the driver.
The documentary, directed by Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker and Michael Wech, is, because of Schumacher’s tragic skiing accident in 2013 from which he remains in recovery, missing its protagonist. The seven-times world champion’s story is told through archive footage, interviews with central characters and a chronological timeline.
All of which is done with reasonable skill if without the flair and pacing of Senna or Amy. However, Schumacher and his family were always intensely guarded of their private lives and since his accident even more so, but here Corinna in particular reveals sides of his character that broaden the perspective of a man often one-dimensionally portrayed as single-mindedly focused only on winning.
The Schumacher we know is here in archive interviews. “100% perfection, to reach 100%, that’s my target, I am just that kind of person,” he says early in the picture. While his background from a working-class German family is ably told to demonstrate the obstacles (including fishing used karting tyres out of bins and using them) he had to overcome which later manifested in a formidable work ethic.
Yet, illustrated by some unique family footage scattered throughout the film, Corinna knew another Michael. “He’s simply the most lovable person I have ever met,” she says. “He was really funny, that’s what I saw in him.”
He was, she reveals, always uncomfortable with fame and happiest with her and son Mick and daughter Gina. He was shy, for which he adopted an affected aloofness as a coping mechanism, his former Ferrari principal Jean Todt argues. There was self doubt too, a reminder that few sportspeople are simply hero or villain.
Theirs was a partnership forged in love which it is hard not to be touched by. She explains that they would share routines but with Schumacher having his days planned in minute detail at races they would have to adapt. Unable to sleep at Suzuka in Japan one year, she spent the night reading a book on the toilet so as not to disturb him. He, in turn, on leaving home early would make a special effort not to wake her, only returning to the bedroom to kiss her goodbye.
The film makers have found footage of Schumacher that reflects Corinna’s view. Perhaps the most powerful and moving is that of an interview about Ayrton Senna’s death at Imola in 1994. In the immediate aftermath Schumacher revealed he almost refused to believe the accident was too bad, that Senna would recover, even from a coma. The news of his death is met with disbelief and his expression still reveals how hard it hit him, even recalling it later.
Driving at Silverstone the same year, Schumacher admitted the impact it had had, not something he allowed to be publicly visible. He drove round, noting as he did: “This is a point you could be dead. This is a point you could be dead.”
This was a vulnerable Schumacher rarely, if ever, seen. Yet insight into the other side of his character is less percipient. The incident at Adelaide in 1994 when he drove into Damon Hill, and with the British driver subsequently out of the race took the title, is discussed, with Hill succinct in his assessment. “As a competitor he was going to win come what may,” he says. “Michael did what he had to do to stop me beating him.”
Schumacher did similar, driving into title rival Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez in 1997 and it is also considered. Villeneuve’s opinion, however, is notable by its absence. Ferrari’s technical director at the time, Ross Brawn, admits that Schumacher accepted what he had done only after he saw video footage, until that point being convinced Villeneuve had driven into him. “In that fraction of a second what happened with him? Who knows,” says Brawn.
The “who knows” of both incidents, why this clearly caring character could also be so absolutely ruthless and the subsequent tarnish to his reputation, is left almost entirely unaddressed despite the wealth of talking heads that contribute to the film and is a real omission.
Instead, as a narrative highpoint the film builds to his success in 2000 in taking Ferrari’s first drivers’ title since 1979. After which his accident and the aftermath is the coda towards which the picture inevitably was heading but here too it is light on detail, especially since so little has been revealed since it happened.
The family clearly still crave privacy and Corinna once more carries the weight of what is to be said. Tearful, she explains how much Schumacher is missed by his family and says: “Michael is here. Different but here. He still shows me how strong he is every day.” Which while it is not as revealing as many might have hoped given the interest in Schumacher’s condition remains exceptionally high, does at least reflect a clear love for her husband that is the real heart in a sometimes sterile film.