En forårsdag i helvede (A Sunday in Hell)

Denmark, 1977 - Director: Jørgen Leth

A documentary film covering the 1976 Paris-Roubaix cycle race, and one of the best sports documentaries of all time. Although he had started his film career steeped in sixties experimentalism, cycle racing had attracted Leth previously as a subject, with his Stjernerne og vandbærerne (Stars and Watercarriers) on the 1973 Giro d'Italia and Den umulige time (The Impossible Hour) covering the duel between Ole Ritter and Eddy Merckx for the world hour record in 1974.

Paris Roubaix, a classic race run over the fearsome cobbles of Northern France, is (even today) an throwback to an earlier era; its length and the unforgiving nature of the pavé lend it a particularly epic flavour. Leth shows us the preparations of the stars - Merckx, Francesco Moser, Roger De Vlaeminck - as well as the lesser lights and the supporting cast, before portraying the race itself in what is almost a dreamscape with a Nielsenesque choral arrangement as its soundtrack. It lingers on personal details like Merckx's perfectionist obsession with his saddle height against the bleak scenery, straight out of Germinal. It also contains quite a bit of observational humour and not a few 1970s haircuts. You can of course look in the records to see who won that year, but I see no point in telling you here.

The shoot was a very substantial logistical effort, since given the unpredictable nature of the race and the unavailability of retakes Leth needed to get a lot of footage, and a lot of use was made of stationary cameras (compared with TV coverage which relies on a small number of motorcycle and helicopter mounted cameras); arranging this on the muddy farm tracks that make up the course, crowded with spectators, cannot have been easy.

The English release of the film was given a sparse but pointed commentary (if slightly dated now, and aimed at an audience with absolutely no knowledge at all of the sport) by the late Daily Telegraph journalist David Saunders, who was a fervent evangelist for cycling to a largely uninterested British sporting public.

Leth resisted efforts to distribute the film on video for a long time; the market was swamped with video highlights of TV race coverage - which A Sunday in Hell is emphatically not. However, after Leth himself finally became involved in TV race coverage himself (working as a race commentator for Danish channel TV2 during the 1990s) he relented, and the English version is now widely available on both sides of the Atlantic, as are the other two of Leth's films mentioned above. I have found no trace of a DVD release.

Nothing else except riding a bike yourself conveys what makes bike racing absorbing as well as this film does.

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