Title: Lauda:The Untold Story
Director: Hannes Michael Schalle
Major Players: Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, David Coulthard et al (as themselves)
Out Of Five: 3
While British movie goers were heading for Arnie Schwarzenegger’s latest Terminator offering on Thursday, another film was opening. And closing. Because documentary Lauda:The Untold Story was screened for just one day in selected cinemas, only to re-appear tomorrow on DVD and on demand. You have to hand it to the distributors, Bulldog Film Distribution: they’ve found yet another way of launching a film.
It’s only a couple of years since we last saw Niki Lauda on screen, as portrayed by Daniel Bruhl in Ron Howard’s Rush (2013). There the focus was very much in his rivalry with James Hunt. But in this studious documentary, the glamorous British driver only merits a few interview clips and that’s it. This time it’s all about Lauda – well, that’s the theory, anyway.
The film is divided, somewhat clumsily, into five sections, each with its own title. It starts with the accident that’s the catalyst for the film, then looks back at Lauda’s rise in motor racing to Formula One Champion, examines his remarkable recovery, the improvements made to safety measures in the 90s and finally Lauda’s career after retiring from motor racing. It makes for a lumpy ride, because the editing from one section to the next is less than smooth and the order in which they are presented is open to question.
That said, the crash at Nurburgring in 1976 is the right starting point. For those who aren’t old enough to remember it, it has to be explained. For those who, like me, remember it well from the TV coverage, it serves as a vivid reminder of one of the most shocking crashes in motor racing history, using newsreel footage and previously unseen material. And that use of newsreel also demonstrates the media treatment of the story, displaying an insensitivity that wouldn’t look out of place today. Lauda’s mother is telephoned by a TV newscaster to find out his medical condition and the woman is close to tears. Later we see his first press conference, where the first question he’s asked is what it feels like to have “an unnatural face.” In his usual take-no-prisoners style, his answer is that it is natural because the skin graft comes from his own thigh.
If the accident is shocking, then aspects of its aftermath are almost as jaw dropping. That press conference for one. And there’s the wince-making moment when Lauda himself describes how a skin graft on his head hadn’t taken properly and how his doctor treated it. Even he has to admit that the pain at the time was “excruciating”. His attitude to people not looking him in the eyes because they were more fascinated by what was left of his right ear is also as practical as you would expect: he always wears his baseball cap, so their eyes are focussed on his. And it has the added benefit of covering up the top of his head.
Nuggets of fascinating information are scattered throughout the film, giving it an almost academic feel. For instance, Nurburgring was the result of a job creation scheme in the 20s in one of the poorest areas of Germany. The one section that’s at odds with the rest of the film deals with the many safety improvements made throughout the sport in the 90s. They were a long time coming after the deaths of a number of high profile drivers in the 70s when, as Sir Jackie Stewart recalls, safety and medical facilities were almost non-existent. At one point, every month saw a driver killed in a crash. And, while Lauda’s accident helped bring about those changes, the film dwells far too long on them and in too much detail, making it look like a clumsy piece of PR for Formula One.
The film has another problem, one that’s nothing to do with the story. Because many of the talking heads are speaking German, it’s subtitled in English and there are times when they are almost illegible. The makers clearly realise there’s a problem with reading them and tries to overcome it by moving the text from the bottom of the screen to the top and back again. But it doesn’t work and all too frequently the lack of contrast between the text and background turns them into fuzzy – and frustrating – little blobs.
How you react to Lauda:The Untold Story rather depends on how you feel about motor racing. Enthusiasts will find it fascinating, mixing the start of the sport with more recent history and the present day, as well as Lauda’s own story. Non-fans might pick up some interesting titbits but will wish for more about the man himself. For a film that’s supposed to be his story, there’s a whole chunk where he’s noticeable by his absence.
Lauda:The Untold Story is released on Monday, 6 July on DVD and on demand and is reviewed on the latest edition of Talking Pictures.