‘Iceman’ (2018): “Payback in the Palaeolithic”
As a child of the ‘90s, it’s great to see the media icons of my youth returning to the spotlight. After comebacks from Jeff Goldblum and Janet Jackson, it’s Ötzi the Iceman’s turn. His hollow eyes and emaciated frame were inescapable in 1991, when his five-thousand-year-old corpse was found in an Alpine glacier, and Iceman, now released on DVD by Bulldog Films, is testament to his lasting celebrity. Like Goldblum and Jackson, he’s lost none of his sex appeal. After a brief prologue showing Ötzi on the mountain where his body would be discovered, we flash back to him having cowgirl-style sex with his wife – a rebuke, perhaps, to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire, which infamously posited that modern man began to evolve when we decided to have missionary position relations.
It’s easy – too easy – to make fun of caveman films. The sight of modern actors in furs grunting at each other is the sort of thing that usually only plays well in comedies – and sure enough, the first caveman film to be influenced by Ötzi’s discovery was Encino Man, which forced its unfortunate unfrozen protagonist to suffer Pauly Shore. Director Felix Randau is going for something different with Iceman. Taking his cue from the discovery of deliberately inflicted wounds on Ötzi’s corpse, he fashions a terse, serious-minded revenge thriller that has been aptly compared to The Revenant.
Certainly, you can’t fault the effort. Iceman’s spoken dialogue is entirely in the now-extinct Rhaetian tongue, which it plays unsubtitled, arguing in an opening caption that the movie was designed to be understood purely visually. It manages this surprisingly effortlessly. There’s never a point where the narrative is confusing, and you might even pick up a phrase or two. Your reviewer freely admits to having no idea what “tineka” means, but then he has no idea what the literal meaning of MacGuffin is either, and in the context of Iceman the two words mean the same thing. What, exactly, the tineka is and why it is so valuable is revealed towards the end in a strange, haunting moment, one which gestures at one of the great questions of human mental evolution: at what point did we realise we were individuals?
If only this had been worked more into the narrative preceding it. Most of Iceman fits too neatly into that most individualistic, lone-wolf of genres, the revenge movie. Randau evokes the sparse, Spartan life of Ötzi – named “Kelab” in the credits, as “Ötzi” refers to his discovery on the Ötztal Alps – and his people very effectively, but the rival tribe we see clearly aren’t thinking of conserving resources when they burn the village down. They’re not thinking of breeding when they rape and murder Kelab’s wife. Nor is Kelab himself thinking purely about survival when he takes care of a baby left orphaned by the carnage. Such moments happen because they happen in action movies. Perhaps your average Charles Bronson or Liam Neeson actioner isn’t a great distance up the evolutionary ladder of cinema, but are their tropes really five thousand years old?
As Kelab climbs further into the Alps and towards the lonely death we know he suffered, the film finally slips the bonds of genre. Lead actor Jürgen Vogel crawls into teardrop-shaped lacunae in the ice, and scrambles up the side of glaciers with primitive tools. Oddly, Randau doesn’t include the familiar shots of the body – perhaps he felt too close to his lead character to linger on the grisly evidence of his death.
If so, it’s quite a testament to Vogel’s performance, which never slips into the silliness that even other ‘serious’ caveman films are prone to. In fact, all of the cast disappear seamlessly into their roles, even the names. Perhaps it’s understandable that fans of Goodnight Mommy might have trouble recognising its lead Susanne Wuest – but how can Franco Nero, one of the iconic faces of European cinema, be as undetectable as this? Whether this commitment is leavened or betrayed by the action-movie clichés of Iceman’s plot will be a matter for the individual viewer to decide. Even the most critical viewer, however, will have to admit that its sincerity and its commitment to accuracy lands it a long way from Raquel Welch fighting stop-motion dinosaurs for Hammer Studios.