Hell on Wheels DVD
The kind of movie that's hard to produce in the US, Hell on Wheels doesn't endeavor to explain the race known as the Tour de France, which shapes the narrative. It assumes you know the Tour, at least at the level where you know what the race is and who the players are. There is no explaining of the action; it's a given you know. It's also a given you've experienced the race from traditional narratives. Hell on Wheels doesn't tell you how fast they go (though it does give numbers), how high they climb (though we see the mountain tops), how dangerous it is (though we see the crashes), or how many people watch the race (though we're present in huge throngs). And, contrary to what you might guess from the title, this movie doesn't dwell on footage of on-bike suffering. The German title of the film is Höllentour, which seems more apt. A tour through Hell. On this Tour, they have a bigger goal, human perspectives on the phenomenon known as the Tour de France.
While the filmmaker, Pepe Danquart, had never been to a bike race until the one we see in the movie, he ends up providing an incredible inside view. The force beyond the movie is the 100th anniversary Tour in 2003, won by Armstrong, but chased by Ullrich and the others all the way to Paris. Danquart puts two riders, T-Mobile veterans Rolf Aldag and Erik Zabel, at the center of the story. It is their race, though we do get plenty of interviews with the rest of the T-Mobile team and see the support crew in action as well as behind the scenes portraits of the Tour and an impressionistic history of the race from journalist Serge Laget. The result is a great appreciation for the race and the racers without knowing whys and wherefores of who won and how.
In many respects, Hell on Wheels is an intimate portrait of the Tour. Much of the movie takes place in the team bus, in hotel rooms, and on the massage table. Aldag and Zabel treat the camera like a friend and take off the competitor mask. Far from being the stone-cold killer hardmen they are on the bike, we find they're not only human, but gentle, and maybe even a little fragile underneath. It could be they're tired and not racing as well as they'd like. Both are comfortable discussing pain and fear and what it takes to put all that out of your head in order to barrel down a mountain in order to catch the group to make the time cut.
Unlike the book An Intimate Portrait of the Tour de France, the images don't come across as homoerotic. While the world is almost exclusively male, maybe one or two female images are shown in the entire movies, the bodies aren't glorified or ogled. They're tools. Though rubbing down of a rider's chest seems to push close. Otherwise, the skimpily clad men, often in skivvies or just a towel, have skin-and-bone torsos and delicately muscled legs, and look a bit like Franken-bodies, with dark arms and legs that seem oddly attached to the ultra pale rest. In terms of the on-camera patter, Zabel describes his relationship with Aldag as a kind of marriage; they've been rooming together for eleven years.
Great documentaries are able to weave a narrative with the curveballs that are thrown their way. Aldag regrets not having won a stage in nine years of racing the Tour, noting that winning one makes you "a bit immortal." The movie reveals a great turnaround for this generally underappreciated domestique. After the big stage one crash, which banged up teammate Andreas Klöden pretty hard, Zabel, on the table, discusses the problems of recovering from crashes. Later, Klöden matter-of-factly describes his bumps and bruises and jokes that it looks like he ran into a boxer. Later, Zabel, too, has a bad crash, and we already know what he's facing.
But we get an even deeper understanding as Zabel discusses how his injuries have not only robbed him of strength, but have taken away his ability to meet his objectives and have changed him from someone who respects the mountains, to someone who fears them. It's shocking to find out he thinks he's getting softer. As Zabel expresses frustration with his inability to win bunch sprints, it's hard not to admire him, as he gives his competitors their due.
The segments that focus on T-Mobile riders, and we also get interviews with Alexander Vinokourov and Directeur Sportif Mario Kummer, are interspersed with vignettes from other segments of the race. We see a buffet set up in a small town as the townspeople gather to enjoy food, each other, the Tour passing, and the exciting finish on television. We spend some time with two couples that have parked their motor home in different mountain locales. We spend some time with a Basque fan club. We see the motormouth Colombian commentator who can seemingly talk for hours. We see the snake colonies of cable that the televised Tour runs on. We see the guys who assemble and break down the stage finish areas. For these sections, there's no interview, no commentary, just life as it brushes against the race.
Tying the racers, the fans, the sport together is the job of Serge Laget. The wizened, bespectacled French journalist seems to exist in a warren crammed with books and pictures and clippings. Mixed in with the other tales is Laget gives a big-picture view of the race along with sharing a history and treasured photos and news stories. Laget describes the cycling as the only sport that ennobles the viewer, and you want to believe him. The riders aren't doing their feats, suffering through hell in a stadium or court, but in the public, in front of people's homes, taking their event to the people. In many respects, television has brought sport to people, but it doesn't seem to be ennobling.
Hell on Wheels, however, is ennobling. It's not the snapshots of the Tour that do it, but the intimacy with the riders. Anyone can snarl on camera or wince in pain, but it takes something special to open yourself up the way the riders have for the filmmaker, and us. What the riders do is all the more impressive because they not only ride fast and suffer, are willing to admit fear, weakness, doubt, and despair. It's the humanity that makes the greatness.