No fur-skin bikinis. No yabba-dabba-doos. No club-carrying brutes called Ugg. Iceman is a stone age thriller unlike either the 70s exploitation flicks or the loveable animated family sitcoms that we all know and (I hesitate to say) love. It is a unique powerhouse of original filmmaking.
In 1991, a frozen corpse was discovered in the alps around the Austria/Italy border. The decaying body was initially mistaken for an old explorer thought to have died in the not-too-distant past. However, a closer inspection revealed that it was in fact the well preserved mummy of someone who had lain in the icy mountain region for more than 5,300 years. Inspired by the discovery of ‘Ötzi The Iceman’, the oldest known human mummy, writer/director Felix Randau imagines the story of “Ötzi’s” life and apparent murder.
It is difficult to judge the accuracy of a film based upon semi-fictitious events that occurred five millennia ago, but so too is it difficult to suppress the nagging voice in the back your mind shouting the question: “But how do they know this is what it was like?” Once you are past that hurdle and stop doing mental gymnastics to figure out how realistic or not a Stone Age Austrian funeral ceremony might be, it becomes easier to accept Iceman for the revenge thriller that it actually is. There has to be some degree of artistic licence allowed, whilst simultaneously appreciating the lengths that have been taken to ensure the feature is more than simply a docu-drama.
Indeed, Ötzi is not in fact “Ötzi”, but is given his own identity as Kelab. The sparse amount of dialogue is spoken in an extinct dialect and is not subtitled. You are expected to give Iceman your undivided attention and to immerse yourself in this cold, unfamiliar world.
Our introduction to the Neolithic Kelab’s (Jürgen Vogel) clan shows the 40-something-year-old Bronze Age man in the act of making love – a figure we’ve come to know for his death is seen creating life, juxtaposing the climactic scene – whilst surrounded by other family or clan members in his wooden hut. During a hunting expedition, Kelab’s small agricultural community is ransacked, pillaged and burned to the ground by a mysterious rival clan who take off with a wooden box containing an unknown item of apparent worth. Falling to his knees amongst the smouldering embers of his charred village, Kelab swears revenge and embarks on a treacherous journey, with surviving infant in tow, that takes him through stunning vistas, snowy mountain peaks and to ultimately face his own mortality.
The plot unravels in a linear fashion without breaking too many conventions: A mystery assailant swipes a MacGuffin and the protagonist chases after it, making friends and enemies along the way. But what makes Iceman special is how it uses pictures to speak its words. There is no internal monologue narrating the story along the way, there are no dramatic speeches from the villains and there are no signposts. Every moment of anguish, triumph and despair is sold through the performances and the way those expressions are captured by Randau. It is a vast undertaking to create a 90 minute thriller in this manner and actually make it thrilling, but it is to the credit of everyone involved that such a feat is accomplished.
The toll of Kelab’s promise to his dead kin begins to wear heavy on his shoulders – but the sheer forceful will of this protector and survivor urges him to continue on the path from which there is no going back. There’s a resignation about the journey he undertakes. From the passing of the young child, to the tossing of a valued possession, there is no redemption awaiting Kelab. He has no home to go back to, no future worth living for, and no present worth preserving except for the bitter blood feud he must avenge.
It would be fascinating to freeze individual frames and conduct a semiotic study of them. So much is revealed in the mise en scene that the pictures are always interesting to look at. Sweeping camera movements capturing Kelab’s descent into a cave with the lifeless body of his loved ones in his arms are enthralling, while the gruesome gauging of his enemy’s eyes add a viciousness that was presumably prevalent in the real world that “Ötzi” lived in, but which we take for granted.
Iceman is a fascinating experiment and an expertly made feature. It takes a moment or two to warm to (excuse the pun) and though the Revenant-meets-Apocalypto plot is relatively straightforward, there is still much enjoyment to be had from this uniquely stunning Stone Age thriller.
Iceman is released in cinemas across the UK by Bulldog Film Distribution today, Friday 27th July. Check out the trailer below and look out for the film on On Demand services.