A body was discovered in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps, frozen in the ice and remarkably well-preserved. Thought at first to be an unfortunate mountaineer, the corpse was soon identified as having lived nearly five thousand years ago. Fresh injuries and multiple human blood sources on his weaponry and clothing suggested a violent end for this man found far from home and all alone. Theories abound, but only one has been turned into a feature film — the thrilling and beautifully shot adventure, Iceman.
Kelab (Jürgen Vogel) is the leader of a small Neolithic village nestled in a valley surrounded by the vastness of nature, and together they live life, raise their families, and survive. That changes one day when Kelab is off hunting and three strangers arrive uninvited. They ravage the village, steal their sacred relic, and murder men, women, and children alike leaving only Kelab’s newborn alive unknowingly. Kelab returns to find his home and family ablaze while the perpetrators head up into the mountains, and after burying his loved ones and securing the infant the rage-filled Kelab sets off after them. It’s a chase built on an adrenaline-fueled thirst for revenge, but the craving might not last until the final moments.
Revenge is a distinctly human trait, and while it only grows more elaborate in its execution as time marches forward the drive and desire for it has been with us even in far simpler times. The fictional story imagined by writer/director Felix Randau for the real body nicknamed “Ötzi” follows genre conventions in its tale of a man seeking vengeance for the loss of his loved ones, and that familiarity is so clear that language is no barrier. The characters speak a version of the Rhaetic language, but no subtitles are provided as they’re wholly unnecessary to understand and follow the emotions and story beats at play here.
Kelab’s pursuit of the evildoers leads him across an unforgiving landscape climbing up icy terrain into the clouds with only his will and the tools of the time driving him, and the result is a quest for violence set against pure beauty. Randau and cinematographer Jakub Bejnarowicz capture the rocky peaks and forested valleys of the Italian Alps with raw majesty, and it’s as welcoming as it is hostile. High precipices are every bit as dangerous as hidden caverns of ice, and revenge is forced to share the screen with a tale of survival.
Per the opening claim, subtitles really aren’t needed to follow along, and to be fair there’s not that much dialogue anyway. An early ceremony suggests the importance of their unseen relic and makes clear the relationships, and a later interaction with an old man (Franco Nero) living on a mountainside is told purely through expression and action. Kelab’s motivations are evident, and every step of his journey — both literal and emotional — is every bit as present. Love, joy, heartache, rage, frustration, and exhaustion are worn on his face, and they’re familiar to viewers across the thousands of years. Kelab’s efforts test his resolve, though, to the point that the only certainty here is that he’ll end up frozen in the mountain.
It’s a genre plot, but the geography and period — along with its fairly authentic approach to the culture and people — suggests it could also serve as an educational entertainment for teens studying history. Could, but unfortunately can’t, as Randau goes unnecessarily heavy on sex during the opening frames (and features a sexual assault shortly thereafter) which would obviously turn even the most liberal of teachers off the material. It’s obviously fitting for the genre, though, and to be clear is less something worth critiquing than a missed opportunity.
Iceman is a visually striking film about horrific acts, and while atypical in setting it’s also a satisfyingly familiar tale of revenge.