Forty years ago, in early 1977, the documentary “En Forårsdag i Helvede”—“A Sunday in Hell”—was released in Denmark, the home of the filmmaker Jørgen Leth. The previous spring, Leth had journeyed to northern France to document the running of Paris–Roubaix, then as now the most prestigious single-day event in professional bike racing.
The result of his labours remains the finest documentary made on the sport and arguably one of the best sports documentaries ever filmed, a claim that might seem curious or hyperbolic considering how few people beyond the world of cycling have seen the film, or even know it exists.
But in its sweep and detail and idiosyncrasies, Leth’s film is deserving of its place among the genre’s finest. If you miss this year’s 115th edition of the Paris–Roubaix race on April 9, cue up “A Sunday in Hell” on YouTube and experience it for yourself.
In the mid-70s, Leth was a poet and auteur whose best-known work as a filmmaker was “The Perfect Human” (1967), a brief, surreal meditation on existence that he once described as “pseudo-anthropological.” (The film would also serve as the basis for his 2003 work “The Five Obstructions,” where Leth was challenged to remake “The Perfect Human” in five different ways by his former film school pupil, Lars von Trier.)
Leth was also a former amateur bike racer, and his wide-ranging documentary subjects included two forays into cycling: “Stars and Watercarriers” (1973), a somewhat clunky record of the Tour of Italy from the perspective of a fellow Dane, the professional racer Ole Ritter; and “The Impossible Hour” (1975), a workmanlike piece of reportage on Ritter’s 1974 attempt to reclaim the world hour record in Mexico City. Those efforts were mere warm-ups for Leth’s appraisal of Paris–Roubaix, known as “the Hell of the North” by virtue of the rough rural cobbles, or pavé, that punctuate stretches of the flat, windy, 160-mile course.
The pavé provide Paris-Roubaix with its lustre and its legend, with assistance from the capricious April weather. In dry years, the peloton and the caravans of support vehicles kick up clouds of choking dust that are visible for miles across the fields of the Nord-Pas de Calais. Worse are the wet years, when the glazed granite cobbles are ice-slick and racers are rendered unidentifiable by the mud that cakes faces, jerseys, and bicycles. The more misery endured by racers, the more compelling the spectacle. Paris–Roubaix is an exercise in brutal attrition, and for many riders the gauntlet of crashes and mechanical mishaps, not to mention the physical punishment of the jarring cobbles and the sheer bug-eyed speed of the race, means that simply finishing constitutes a major achievement.
Leth arrived in France well-equipped to capture Paris–Roubaix’s rich mash-up of sport, ritual, and theatre. His crew included more than two dozen cameramen, as well as a helicopter that he would put to extraordinarily good use. His plan was part of an aesthetic mission to provide sport the kind of artistic treatment he believed it deserved, one that pushed it well beyond the results captured in headlines or the personality-worship that passed for most documentary attempts.
“I wanted to create a poetics of it, to portray sports heroes as representing old-fashioned virtues, such as courage, sacrifice, [and] extreme loyalty,” he once told an interviewer. Paris–Roubaix provided Leth with the raw materials with which to fashion a genuine epic, and he did not disappoint.
I first saw “A Sunday in Hell” in 1980 as a college student, and I can still recall my feeling of revelation as I left the theatre, the excitement that comes with discovering a universe I had no idea existed.
American bike racing in 1980 had yet to find its international legs, though I could not have known how close it actually was: Jonathan Boyer was a year away from becoming the first American to race in the Tour de France, and a young Greg LeMond was just three years from winning the first of his two World Championships—and, later, three Tour de Frances.
In my awestruck moments following Leth’s film, though, I was convinced that the Europeans, especially the Flemish classics specialists—with their skill, fervor, and frightful aggression—were cycling gods who would never be challenged by the likes of mere Americans. My assessment wasn’t entirely inaccurate; despite the American successes (and, in fairness, skullduggery) that would reshape professional cycling in the decades to come, no North American has ever won Paris–Roubaix.
From its first moments, “A Sunday in Hell” promises a very different sports-documentary experience. The film opens not with fanfare and promises of glory, but with a prolonged shot of a solitary mechanic prepping a team’s bikes before the race, accompanied on the soundtrack by an introspective solo cello.
The introductions of the race’s key protagonists—defending champ Roger De Vlaeminck, the young star Freddy Maertens, the legendary Eddy Merckx, Belgians all—are handled in a leisurely manner, as is the set-up for the race that includes a subplot involving De Vlaeminck and Merckx, both of whom are vying for an unprecedented fourth Paris–Roubaix win. (Leth, in fact, is in no hurry with any aspect of his storytelling; it’s a full half-hour before the race even gets underway.)
Leth’s cameras get close enough to capture telling moments—De Vlaeminck getting a pre-race massage and check-up (resting heart rate: 40), Merckx fiddling obsessively with the height of his saddle—while maintaining a rigorous distance. There are no up-close-and-personal segments with the athletes and no talking-head commentary, with the exception of a few civilian café prognosticators who offer their opinions to anyone who’ll listen. Leth’s only concession to the sports documentary form is a spare voiceover, written by Leth and narrated by the British journalist David Saunders, to orient viewers and familiarize us with the tactics, rivalries, and unfolding action. (One of the idiosyncrasies of the film is the occasional moment of odd hyperbole that Leth allows to leak into the narration, as when a rider sets off on a breakaway and “bravely takes his life in his hands.”) The accompanying music, by Danish composer Gunner Moller Pedersen, ranges from the martial threat of thundering tympani to a soaring chorus sung by members of the Royal Danish Opera.
Bike races, Leth once said, are stories that “happen in geography and climate,” and one of the gifts of “A Sunday in Hell” is its patient, detailed presentation of place, from the pomp and chaos of the start to the crowded cafes along the course to the finish-line preparations at the old velodrome in Roubaix.
The early miles of the race, once it sets off, have a Sunday-ramble feel to them, and include shots of lovely French countryside as well as strident protesters who twice manage to interrupt the event as part of a labour dispute with one of the race’s media sponsors. “A Sunday in Hell” provides a candid snapshot of provincial French life in the seventies, complete with op-art wallpaper and a parade of bell-bottom slacks. (Merckx is first glimpsed in civilian garb, sporting sunglasses and a stylish powder-blue suit, oozing rock-star charisma.) It would be easy for a casual viewer to conclude that the subject of Leth’s camera is life, with a bike race running through it.
Soon enough, though, the race takes over, and our focus is consumed by cobbles, grit, and speed. Leth’s cameras capture the race from motorcycles, team cars, stationary points along the course, and from a helicopter that provides long, beautifully sweeping shots of the pack strung out along the road. The 1976 race was a dry affair, and Leth relishes the artistic possibilities presented by dust; riders and support vehicles materialize in slow-motion from dense clouds of the stuff, the persistent shaking of the riders’ arms suggesting the punishment being dished out by the pavé.
In those shots lies the essence of Leth’s film, which can be distilled down to man vs. cobble; despite the technical challenges presented by the stones, the best riders are able to float across the toughest sections as if the pavé barely existed.
Leth also finds plenty of blood along the route, and some of the crash scenes are not for the squeamish. The conventional wisdom, richly captured in “A Sunday in Hell,” is that no one escapes Paris–Roubaix unscathed; success isn’t as much about good luck as it is having as little bad luck as possible.
The final miles of the race are as dramatic and intense as any sporting moments captured on film. As the field is winnowed to the hardest of the hard men—racers with nicknames like “The Cannibal,” “The Gypsy,” and “The Bulldog of Flanders”—the fierce racing is interspersed with relaxed moments in the cafes or at the finish line.
But as Roubaix nears, Leth’s editing tightens, and the cameras rarely leave the action on the road. The riders attack each other mercilessly, the up-close motorcycle cameras recording the exertion and desperation of professional athletes clawing for one of cycling’s most vaunted prizes.
The narration becomes increasingly terse, almost metronomic, and Saunders’ hypnotic delivery—“One by one, they falter”—accentuates the dreamlike feel of Leth’s footage. The multi-layered soundtrack is reduced to what sounds like high, sustained strings and an unsettling clicky sound that suggests a bike chain running through its gears—paired with the images, it’s the sound of tension and high anxiety. By the time the lead group of four reaches Roubaix for the final showdown on the velodrome track, after more than six-and-a-half hours of furious riding, the anticipation is almost unbearable.
American writer John Updike once said that “every true story has an anticlimax,” and Leth chooses an odd but effective moment to introduce his own anticlimax to “A Sunday in Hell.” As the victor ascends the winner’s podium—the spot where a more sentimental observer might laud the qualities of courage, valor, and exceptional fitness—Leth chooses to couch the proceedings in the language of business, focusing on sponsors, contractual obligations, and the race’s bottom line as a money-making event.
Even in the velodrome’s famous stone showers, where the racers seem once again human—Merckx is glimpsed with a sizable patch of road rash on one of his shoulders—the takeaway is almost prosaic: another Sunday, another race, another paycheck, sporting ritual in the service of commerce.
But we can’t unsee what Leth has spent the previous 100 minutes showing us. If this is what it is to be a working stiff on the pro cycling circuit, my god, where do I sign?
Leth’s film concerns itself primarily with the human rather than the social, and in its portrait of a single bike race, “A Sunday in Hell” manages to capture those elemental qualities—courage, sacrifice, and loyalty, not to mention a certain kind of character that comes with enduring the French cobbles—that Leth sought to document in sports.
It may also be his most successful film at conveying the elusive human essence that he has spent much of his career trying to capture.
“I’m not motivated by what I can tell others about life,” said Leth, now 79, in a recent documentary on his life and work. “I’m motivated by what I can understand of life by making my films.”
With their dirty faces and eager eyes, bloodied and determined, Leth’s bike racers from 40 years ago look every inch the perfect humans.
Scott Sutherland is a journalist and editor in the United States whose work has featured in New York Times, the New Yorker and Velo.