The man who inspired superheroes

A new Netflix documentary tells the story of the Paralympics, and the Jewish refugee who founded them


When filmmakers Peter Ettedgui and Ian Bonhôte were approached with the idea for their new Netflix film Rising Phoenix, it took them by complete surprise. “This came to us from leftfield,” says Ettedgui. A compelling story about the history of the Paralympics —the third most-watched sporting event around the world — it started as a six-minute teaser sent to them by producer John Battsek.

Ettedgui had worked with Battsek on several films — including scripting the James Bond documentary Everything or Nothing and Marlon Brando tale Listen to Me Marlon —but this felt different. Yes, there were classic sporting moments featuring disabled athletes, not least the heart-swelling moment when Beatrice “Bebe” Vio, the Italian wheelchair fencer, won gold at Rio 2016. But there was more.

“I think what spoke to us particularly straight away was the fact that there was this extraordinary origin story of Ludwig Guttmann and his escape from Nazi Germany and setting up the first sort of real spinal injury unit in the UK,” says Ettedgui. “We didn’t necessarily want to make an historical documentary but that story was just so interesting and we knew nothing about it.”

Dr Guttmann’s story — which features prominently in Rising Phoenix — is a fascinating one. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Tost, Germany, Guttmann was a neurologist and surgeon who escaped Nazi Germany for Britain in 1939 after witnessing the persecution of his fellow Jews.

During the war, he established the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire.

It was at Stoke Mandeville that he created what became the first ever Paralympics event. Guttmann believed sport was an ideal rehabilitation for the many disabled war veterans he encountered and the inaugural event took place on July 29, 1948, the same day as the opening of the London Olympics — thereby forever inextricably tying the two together.

Rising Phoenix immediately felt very personal to both the British-born Ettedgui and Bonhôte, who previously co-directed the Bafta-nominated fashion documentary McQueen with Ettedgui. “Peter’s Jewish and I’ve got a Jewish grandmother, who escaped the Holocaust as well,” says Bonhôte, born in Switzerland to a French mother. “So that story was very powerful [to us].”

They weren’t the only ones who felt the potential for Rising Phoenix. Among the film’s executive producers are some of the most respected members of the film community, including Love Actually writer-director Richard Curtis and Barbara Broccoli, producer of the James Bond franchise.

Of course, the real stars of the film are the nine athletes, whose stories interweave with Bonhôte and Ettedgui’s re-telling of the origins of the Paralympics.

Among those featured is French athlete Jean-Baptiste Alaize — a survivor of the Burundian Civil War, who lost his leg to a machete attack when he was young; Russian-American Tatyana McFadden, who was born with spina bifida, raised in an orphanage and went on to win 17 Paralympic medals — including seven golds; and South African teen Ntando Mahlangu, who won silver at Rio 2016 after spending the first ten years of his life confined to a wheelchair.

The filmmakers were still left with questions, notes Bonhôte. “How can we make a film that has got an impact and can actually attract a young audience, an audience that might be into sports but might not be considering anyone with an impairment, in a chair or missing a limb, worthy of interest?” The answer was to use the theme of superheroes. “What they’ve harnessed is a bit like Clark Kent. They were the underdog. Society was against them, but they harness their superpower.”

As the film shows, Guttmann died in 1980 —ironically, just at the time the Soviet Union announced it wasn’t going to host the Paralympics alongside the Moscow Olympics because, as one official notoriously put it, “There are no invalids in the USSR!”

Unable to talk to the father of the Paralympics, the Rising Phoenix team turned to his daughter Eva Loeffler, who was six when Guttmann fled Germany and later worked alongside him at Stoke Mandeville.

“When we spoke to her, she was very moved, very emotional,” recalls Greg Nugent, Rising Phoenix’s producer and former marketing director of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. “And she said, ‘It’s beautiful. It’s extraordinary. And my Dad would be so proud of what has become.’

“She wasn’t talking about the film, she was saying he’d be so proud of looking at Bebe and Tatyana and Ntando. He’d be proud of these characters because that’s what he was fighting for.”

Also dealing with the huge success of London 2012, when broadcaster Channel 4 ran its striking, award-winning “Meet the Superhumans” campaign, and the near collapse of the Paralympics at Rio 2016, due to lack of sponsorship, Rising Phoenix is a true feat of narrative engineering, packing in so much. But even so, the filmmakers regret not having the bandwidth to take on certain subjects.

“What we don’t touch on in the film is obviously what was happening to people in wheelchairs in Nazi Germany; they were being exterminated alongside Jews,” says Ettedgui.

“But then in the UK, and everywhere else, if you were paraplegic — you were made paraplegic during the war — you were basically left to die. So you were put on a human scrapheap effectively. And that’s one extreme, I suppose. But then the other extreme is a kind of apathy.”

Hoping to change public attitudes to disability, the filmmakers ensured the production was as diverse as possible, with 16 per cent of the team made up of people with disabilities.

“Often you’ll hear, ‘Yeah, we would love to [hire people withdisabilities] but actually unfortunately they don’t have the same training or the same level of ability,’” remarks Ettedgui. “Well, I can tell you that everyone who worked with us was just unbelievably good at their jobs.”

With such positive messages coming out of Rising Phoenix, the team even managed to snag an on-camera interview with Prince Harry, who previously created the Invictus Games, in which wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel compete in various sports.

While he gives a candid interview, the Royal provided the perfect grace-note to end on, says Ettedgui. “He wanted to talk about the fact [that] Guttmann’s message is not finished.” Rising Phoenix certainly sees to that.

Rising Phoenix is available on Netflix

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