The World’s Oldest Cold Case
“Iceman” was inspired by a 5,300-year-old corpse that was uncovered in 1991. It explores an ancient age of severe everyday survival in the Alps against the forces of nature and human nature. With only his newborn son left alive after his home was brutally pillaged and burned down, the ‘Iceman”, Kelab (Jürgen Vogel), has a great deal on his mind. He sets out on a personal pilgrimage, traversing the harsh terrain in order to find and wreak revenge on the murderous mob who destroyed his home. There is something quite mesmerizing in the language of the native tribes not being translated leaving it to the viewer to figure out what was being said. This also pulls us into the story and we become a bit more than onlookers. In fact, there is very little dialogue in the entire film. Instead, the emphasis is not on what we hear but on what we see.
The wide, sweeping shots of the mountains showcase a world that is both beautiful and deadly; a world where Mother Nature becomes a femme fatale. Opposite the visuals is the claustrophobia of everyday life inside the sweaty hut of Kelab’s family. While his son plays a woodwind melody, the camera pans to husband and wife having sex. There is a duality in this opening that captures the film’s juxtaposition of daily survival between the animalistic and the mundane. We have certainly had our share of man vs. nature stories in the past yet director Felix Randau manages to keep this fresh through breathtaking surroundings and several intimately suspenseful moments.
We also see a bit of man versus man with murder and revenge as a psychological, and not just physical, survival. After Kelab’s family is killed he wastes no time mourning; he ritualistically salts the corpses and prepares to stalk and defeat his new enemies. This questions the nature of the ‘revenge instinct,’ and whether it is something naturally inherent or a nurtured religious need. Either way, Kelab finds difficulty in breaking this cycle.
“Iceman” is not just about Kelab’s battle between himself and those who have violently wronged him, but about the external and internal wars between man, nature and nurture. The film is “meticulously mounted but narratively simplistic”. At first we see it as an imagining of the last days in the life of the man who we know as Ötzi and whose mummified remains were found in the Alps in 1991, and were subsequently discovered to date back to 3300 B.C. The oldest European we’ve found apparently died a violent, unnatural death: He had an arrowhead lodged inside him, four different types of blood on his body and likely died from blunt force head trauma. “Iceman” is a straight-up, linear revenge story in which our hero’s very specific set of skills include fire-building, deer-hunting and the economical reuse of arrows.
The dialogue is in early Rhaetian, an extinct language believed to have been in use at the time in the region. Translation is not required to understand this story suggesting that either the filmmaking will be so exceptional that subtle cues can be delivered non-verbally, or that the story will be fairly schematic and this is indeed the case.
We get the impression that Kelab was a doting dad and happily monogamous partner to Kisis (Susanne Wuest). When Kelab goes off to hunt, a trio of miscreants led by Krant (André Hennicke) descend on the settlement, rape and murder Kisis, and kill everyone else in sight before making off with the Sacred MacGuffin. The violence here is visceral. Kelab, seeing the smoke from the fire heads home down the hillside, but arrives too late to save anyone except the neighbor’s baby, who had been overlooked by the marauders. Having laid Kisis and his own young son to rest, Kelab embarks on his mission of revenge, only slightly hampered by suddenly being, essentially, a single father. This quest will take him into the snowy peaks, and into contact with travelers and settlers alike, whom he must sort into friend or foe categories.
The action scenes are all well-staged and often impressively gruesome. They give us a look of life in primitive times.