HELL ON WHEELS
2003 saw the centenary of the world's premier cycling event, the Tour de France, a month-long, 2500-kilometre race around the French countryside. This documentary follows the event from start to finish, focusing in particular on German riders Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag.
Review by Jake Wilson:
Unless you're an absolute cycling tragic this is pretty much the only Tour de France documentary you'll ever need. There are only so many ways you can shoot a bunch of guys moving along a road, and the directors Pepe Danquart and Werner Schweizer try them all (close-ups of feet on pedals, helicopter shots...). More entertainingly, the camera wanders, showing the race itself to be just one aspect of a vast communal event - with spectators, officials and pundits all getting their moments in the sun. There are shots here that could come straight out of a Jacques Tati comedy: a row of cyclists standing by the roadside, stretching their legs and pissing in unison like a Broadway chorus line. Or a cut from a radio commentator describing the race as it unfolds to a pair of men sitting and listening to his manic spiel on a deserted hillside, far away from all the hubbub.
Danquart and Schweizer don't put too much stress on the outcome of the race; the real drama here stems from the contrast between rural calm and the inner pressure felt by men pushing themselves to physical and emotional limits. It's hard to tell if it's the nature of the sport or European reserve which makes these guys come off as dour and surprisingly modest, as if saving their energy for the labour ahead rather than conversation. Projection of "personality" is left to the talking-head experts, like the French journalist Serge Laget - a young-at-heart scholar who bounds round his study finding newspaper clippings and forthrightly declares the race to be the greatest sporting event on the planet.
"Cycling is the only sport that ennobles the spectator," Laget also remarks, showing he shares the national gift for aphorism, not to say overstatement. With a running-time of more than two hours Hell on Wheels is conceived on a scale to match its epic subject, allowing the audience to feel that in some small way they too have undergone a test of stamina. Dare I admit my endurance gave out before the end? As for whether I felt ennobled, hard to say. On the evidence presented here, the Tour de France is the most civilised of sporting blockbusters. Yet along with all the goodwill expressed by spectators towards the riders goes a definite sadism, hinted at even in the film's title. I can't be the only one who finds the most physically thrilling moments to be the crashes.
Email this article
HELL ON WHEELS (PG)
CAST: Documentary featuring Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag.
PRODUCER: Mirjam Quinte
DIRECTOR: Pepe Danquart and Werner Schweizer
SCRIPT: Pepe Danquart
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Michael Hammon, Wolfgang Thaler, Filip Zumbrunn
EDITOR: Mona Brauer
MUSIC: Till Bronner
PRODUCTION DESIGN: N/a
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Aztec International
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 19, 2005