“Autumn Gold” tells the story of five remarkable European athletes, all between 83 and 100, who compete in the track-and-field World Masters Championships. Though their achievements are undeniably inspiring, the docu’s structural flaws detract from its otherwise life-affirming message. That’s a shame, because “Autumn Gold,” in some format, deserves to be seen, perhaps recut and reframed as a PBS or Discovery Channel special.
Helmer Jan Tenhaven tracked more than a dozen senior athletes before settling on the five subjects of “Autumn Gold.” Alfred Proksch, 100, is an Austrian discus thrower and active painter. Like him, Italian aerobics instructor and discus star Gabre Gabric, 95, partook in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. German widow Ilse Pleuger, 85, aspires to break the world record in shotput. Swedish sprinter Herbert Liedtke, 93, runs himself to the brink of collapse. At 82, the baby of the bunch is Czech athlete Jiri Soukup, a high jumper with wobbly knees.
That these individuals should be competing at their age — let alone doing leg lifts — is mind-boggling. Tenhaven cuts back and forth among them, allowing each athlete to share aspects of his or her life story or ultimate hopes for the future. Because he opts for a freewheeling structure over a unifying theme, however, there’s a palpable lack of conflict — a paradox for a film about personal quests and elusive challenges. And there’s enough rich material here that such conflict (man vs. man, man vs. his own body, man vs. society’s preconceptions) would seem to arise naturally from the circumstances depicted.
There are moving demonstrations of genuine grace and pain-defying willpower in “Autumn Gold.” When one athlete looks into the camera and announces, “I want to outlive you,” it feels like a call to arms. It’s difficult to imagine more compelling proof of the human capacity to resist going gently into the night.