A Sunday in Hell is a documentary by Danish director Jorgen Leth chronicling the 1976 Paris-Roubaix bicycle race, one of the five one-day classic cycling events often referred to as the Monuments. The film's existence is little-known beyond the world of cycling, yet it is considered the finest documentary on the sport. Some would even argue that it's one of the best sports films ... ever.
Paris-Roubaix is the most famous — and usually the most dramatic — of the spring races. A narration in Leth's film says it all: "This hell consists of some primitive narrow country roads with centuries-old cobblestones — les paves du Nord — roads no longer used for civilized traffic, but for driving cattle and for a bicycle race. ... Year after year. ... A setting for an incredible Dante's Inferno with tortures and even martyrdom."
There is a book that offers remarkable insight into how A Sunday in Hell came together and, as a by-product, gives the reader a deeper understanding of why Paris-Roubaix stands out as a peloton and fan favorite. It's titled "Sunday in Hell: Behind the Lens of the Greatest Cycling Film of All Time" by William Fotheringham (Yellow Jersey Press, 2018). The same author of "Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike," which I also enjoyed reading from cover to cover.
The significant points conveyed in Fotheringham's 255-page book are many, with his observations of Leth and his collaborators' creativity taking center stage. Key elements include:
— The spontaneous camera shots that bring a true realness to the film. What the director calls a "contract with chance" approach.
— A sizable portion of the action centers around stars of the sport — Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Freddy Maertens, and Francesco Moser. Referred to in the documentary as the "four heroes." Just as an aside, the first two names certainly caught my attention, as I have obtained both of their autographs.
— The explanations behind the use of different camera and sound techniques; described in the book as revolutionary.
— The noticeably sparse amount of editorial dialogue, unlike today's presentations. Leth wants the viewer to observe and study.
The British author also does a wonderful job of delving into how the film captures particular moments and moods. The critical break in the race. The constant battle to save the paves — cobblestones — from the threat of tarmac; without them, it's just another race. Projecting a sort of 1950s feeling; smallish in nature compared to the present-day "circus." And the post-race ritual that takes place in the legendary showers.
Obviously, as an avid cyclist, A Sunday in Hell ranks high as one of my favorite films. However, I wouldn't hesitate recommending it to anyone — even those who never touch a bicycle. While I have viewed the remarkable documentary a few times in the past, now having read Fotheringham's book, I'm looking forward to seeing it again.