In September 1991, a body was found up in the Ötztal Alps. The man, nicknamed Ötzi or ‘the Iceman’, was suggested to have lived over 5000 years ago – making the discovery that of the oldest human mummy in European history. Now transformed into a fictional account of Ötzi’s final weeks, Iceman offers an undeniably ambitious premise – though one that falls sadly too short in its ultimate execution.
Iceman begins by declaring, via title card, that the dialogue in the film is made up of a close approximation of the Rhaetic language – a pre-Roman dialect that soon died out. Fans of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) will know just how deeply impactful such a technique is – and Iceman is, if nothing else, a masterclass in visual cinema.
Jakub Bejnaworicz’s fluid camera work feels intensely organic – surprisingly discreet, given the stunning vistas available to him, but also deftly intuitive. Such was the severity of the location’s climate, the Iceman team weren’t afforded the luxury of long shooting days or pick-ups – and there’s absolutely the sense that Bejnaworicz planned this undertaking meticulously. Every tracking shot (there are several, each as accomplished as the next) carries such precision that, despite the often-chaotic scenes on-screen, the audience is kept firmly on top of things due to the camera’s smart navigation.
The death of Ötzi – named Kelab in the film – bookends the narrative, with the majority of Iceman being told through flashback. Kelab is led on the hunt for vengeance, after his village is burned down and his family murdered by a group of bandits. At least, we assume it’s vengeance; the bandits also take a strange artefact along with them, and Kelab’s pursuit soon reveals a deep-rooted piety within him.
It’s along this journey that Iceman’s shortcomings begin to thaw out – with a disorientated narrative being exposed by some frankly abysmal pacing. Moments of action appear from seemingly nowhere, whilst the excitement of some genuinely encouraging set pieces is mishandled entirely. Perhaps this effect is intentional – a conscious decision to better reflect Kelab’s lengthy and desolate trek – but it instead came across as misinformed crosscutting which cast the viewer adrift.
While Iceman has been popularly referred to as a ‘Neolithic The Revenant’, it might be best described as the sort of film The Revenant could have been in the hands of a lesser film crew – the kind that don’t play their cards at the right time, or utilise them at all. Like Iñárritu’s Oscar winner, though, the combat sequences are handled thrillingly. Such is the strength of the choreography, the action unfolds like a dance of life or death with effortless ease and poeticism.
Kelab, like that of Hugh Glass, is exactly the sort of demanding, one-off role that every actor dreams of being challenged to fulfil. Jürgen Vogel does superbly with his unique opportunity, and yet you still almost end up feeling sorry for the actor – for all the wrong reasons. His gruelling physical performance is deserving of so much more from the film itself; not quite the Oscar that it yielded DiCaprio, but certainly some better editing decisions and less isolating storytelling.
The ultimate frailty of Iceman lies in its execution rather than ambitions – an always commendable outcome to the alternative. Still, it’s hard not to feel disappointed at the chance missed by director Felix Randau. It could have easily been one of the year’s understated masterpieces; instead, it’s a frosty squib.
Dir: Felix Randau
Cast: Jürgen Vogel, André M. Hennicke, Sabin Tambrea
Prd: Jan Krüger
DOP: Jakub Bejnaworicz
Music: Beat Solèr
Country: Germany, Italy, Austria
Runtime: 96 minutes
Iceman is in select cinemas now and available on demand.