‘Iceman’ (‘Der Mann aus dem Eis’): Film Review | Locarno 2017

German actor Juergen Vogel plays a Copper Age Alps-dweller who is out for revenge in ‘Iceman’ (‘Der Mann aus dem Eis’), a fictional take on what the life of wet mummy Otzi might have been like before he died.

It could be called the first murder mystery in human history: Who killed the man now nicknamed “Otzi,” an Eneolithic Alps dweller whose exceptionally well-preserved mummy was found in a glacier on the Italo-Austrian border in 1991 but who died around 3,200 BCE, probably from an arrow wound and/or a blow to the head? German writer-director Felix Randau (Northern Star) imagines a possible answer to the whodunit aspect of the story but this is only the end point of what is basically a visceral thrill ride through the Alpine Copper Age, as the fortysomething Otzi is reimagined as a man whose small creekside community comes under attack, sending the hunter-gatherer on a manhunt with just one goal: revenge.

Iceman offers not only a rare look at the European Chalcolithic but is also spoken in early Rhaetian, rather than any modern language, with the filmmakers having made the bold choice to forego subtitling altogether. (“Translation is not required to understand this story,” a cheeky early title card informs us.) This turns the feature almost into a silent film, at least in terms of its acting and mise-en-scene, though one that does have the benefit of a full-bodied score, countless universally understandable grunts and short bursts of spoken words whose meaning needs to be inferred from the situations in which they are uttered. A ballsy but also logical Piazza Grande choice in Locarno, itself in the foothills of the Alps, this should appeal to other festivals and could potentially interest distributors, especially those with marketing teams that like a challenge not faced since the release of films such as Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire.

The Bottom Line

The year’s other, better ‘Mummy’ movie.

The press kit refers to Otzi as “Kelab” (German actor Juergen Vogel), and he seems to be the chieftain of a small group living on the slopes of the Alps, near a brook. When one of the women of the clan dies in childbirth, Kelab is the one performing the rituals for the dead woman, with the rest of the small community following his lead. Life initially seems to go back to normal but then a vicious attack by outsiders, while Kelab is away hunting, leaves all the other villagers dead except for the infant whose mother died in childbirth earlier. Randau stages the violence with a sense of intimate realism, never turning the film into an epically violent gore-fest but neither soft-pedaling the harsh reality of living in a time when violence was much more a part of everyday life than it is now.

Kelab leaves the torched settlement with the infant in tow but not before having completed another ceremony for the dead, this time for his wife. The repetition of the ritual is a simple but highly effective way of telling a whole story in visuals, as the difference between the setups makes it clear an entire village, which was present the first time around, has disappeared between the first and second time he performs the rites.

The bulk of the film is basically one long and mad hunt for the culprits. Rather predictably, Kelab runs into some nasty pieces of work along the way but also, occasionally, strangers that show him kindness, notably to help with his infant. (One such stranger is played, in a cameo, by Franco Nero, ironically dressed in all white.) Randau stages most of his film in medium and wider shots, not only to showcase the impressive Alps and the natural surroundings at all times but also because there’s no need for a lot of close-ups when there’s no reliance on dialogues. In any case, Vogel’s thick beard and wild hair occasionally make it hard to get more than a basic idea of his facial expressions, so it’s more useful to be able to read his body language rather than just see his face. The actor’s physical presence is impressive and he’s compelling even if we never understand a word he says — not that Otzi’s much of a talker to begin with.

Indeed, by design, the story doesn’t have any psychological finesse, nor ponders much in terms of existential questions. Quite the contrary, it is conceived as a kind of high-octane entertainment that only telegraphs very basic emotions — love, revenge, physical hardship, cold — from scene to scene while trying to keep momentum going. The latter perhaps sounds easier than it is, since audiences will be aware from the start that the future mummy isn’t headed for a particularly happy end, though Randau (semi-spoiler) has a narrative false-bottom in store that cleverly plays with audience expectations. The director and his editor, Vessela Martschewski, carefully modulate their story in terms of the necessary tension and moments to breathe, drawing audiences in by clearly laying out the stakes of each sequence. The only exception to the latter is the function of a kind of holy object or talisman, which is clearly important but whose significance is somewhat lost in translation.

Cinematography, production design and costume design all help create the very believable word that Kelab inhabits, even if the digital cinematography still can’t quite render fire as beautifully as celluloid can. A traditional score is one of the few outside elements brought in to help tell this otherwise non-subtitled tale of survival and retribution.   

Production companies: Port Au Prince Film & Kultur Produktion, Echo Film, Lucky Bird Pictures, Amour Fou Vienna
Cast: Juergen Vogel, Andre M. Hennicke, Sabin Tambrea, Susanne Wuest, Martin Augustin Schneider, Violetta Schurawlow, Axel Stein, Paula Renzler, Franco Nero
Writer-director: Felix Randau
Producer: Jan Krueger
Executive producers: Andreas Eicher, Melanie Moeglich, Oliver Rihs
Director of photography: Jakub Bejnaworicz
Production designer: Juliane Friedrich
Costume designer: Cinzia Cioffi
Editor: Vessela Martschewski
Music: Beat Soler
Casting: Emrah Ertem
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Sales: Beta Cinema

In Proto-Rhaetian
97 minutes