Arts documentary review

Schumacher is a brilliant ode to a brilliant racing driver

The story of seven-time-world champion Michael Schumacher’s Formula One journey

Directed by Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker, Michael Wech
Written by Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker, Michael Wech
Starring Michael Schumacher
Streaming on Netflix

Netflix’s Schumacher, released Sept. 15, is the documentary Formula One fans have been waiting for. It’s the first (and, so far, only) documentary made about seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher that has his family’s seal of approval, and it charts his journey from a young boy racing in go-karts to his five consecutive titles with the iconic team Ferrari. 

The real attraction, however, is the insight we get as to his present-day condition — Schumacher was involved in a horrific skiing accident in 2013 that left him with severe brain damage. While the documentary does not show footage of him in his current condition out of respect, we do see his son Mick (a Formula One driver himself), daughter Gina, and wife Corinna speak compellingly about his legacy and his continued presence in their lives.

Schumacher is, out of necessity, very heavy on the Formula-One-related content. There is discussion of Schumacher’s first two world titles (1995 and 1996) with the now-defunct racing team Benetton, his struggles after switching to Ferrari, and his and Ferrari’s ultimate redemption with five consecutive world titles (2000–2004). One of the most memorable moments in the documentary for me is the shot of him crossing the finish line at the 2000 Japanese Grand Prix and taking the 2000 World Championship. The swelling music drives home how long overdue this moment was for him. The opening shot of the documentary is also beautiful, showing Schumacher speeding around the track in Monaco, completely in the zone.

The one complaint I have is the depiction of Schumacher’s five titles that he won with Ferrari. The documentary shows Schumacher winning the 2000 Japanese Grand Prix and taking his first world championship with Ferrari, but there’s very little mention of his seasons between 2001 and 2004. Someone unfamiliar with the Formula One scene would struggle to appreciate the magnitude of his five back-to-back titles. 

There’s also an undercurrent of sadness throughout the entire documentary, because we know exactly what happens to Michael. There’s a chillingly prescient shot of him discussing Ayrton Senna (a brilliant racing driver and Schumacher’s hero) and his fatal crash at the Imola Grand Prix in 1994: Senna hit the barriers at 190 miles per hour and entered a coma, in which he eventually died. Schumacher explains movingly how such accidents are never anticipated and a coma can be “anything” — but of course, in both Senna and Schumacher’s cases, it is devastating. We also see Schumacher tear up in the press conference after the 2000 Italian Grand Prix, where his victory caused him to equal Senna’s own race win count.

Schumacher also fantastically depicts Michael’s more human side. For example, we see plenty of his wife, Corinna Schumacher, throughout the documentary. One of her more notable moments is her explanation of how she fell in love with Michael: at a birthday celebration, he was the only one who helped her do the dishes. It’s such a small detail to include, but it’s ultimately a huge signifier of the type of man Michael is. Sure, he’s arguably the best Formula One driver of all time, but he’s not too good for household chores.

There’s also an incredibly moving scene of his son Mick Schumacher, currently a Formula One driver in his rookie season, discussing the influence his father has had on him. I was struck by his use of the word “unfair” to describe his father’s circumstances — “unfair” that he can no longer create those good moments with his dad and that he only has the ones from his childhood to fall back on. 

Ultimately, the goal of the documentary was to add more dimension to Michael Schumacher, to transform him from a character into a real person — and in that, it was a resounding success.  The last shot is what drives it home: Michael Schumacher in that iconic Ferrari, completely in his element, racing in Monaco. It’s a parallel to the opening scene, and it’s also a reminder that the seven-time-world-champion Michael really did exist once upon a time, and he is, at least in spirit, still with us.