The discovery of a 5,000-year-old man preserved in ice is bound to raise some questions. Ötzi, found by two German tourists in the Ötzal Alps at the border of Austria and Italy, had an arrow through his left shoulder, a fatal wound. Felix Randau’s Iceman christens him Kelab, the head of a small clan, a hunter-gatherer, who returns home one day to a raped and pillaged settlement.
His wife and son dead, and Tineka (an object of importance to the clan) taken, he sets out for revenge with the last surviving member of the group: a new-born baby. They traverse hills and valleys in solitude, driven by rage and a sense of justice.
It comes not long after Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, another barebones story of wrongdoings done to someone who refuses to quit. Revenge’s female hero complemented conversations at the time surrounding representation in cinema, and made a modern enemy out of men who abuse women. Iceman is more primitive, returning to a male-led story driven by the death of a woman.
It’s a hyper-masculine film all round, and its enjoyment hinges upon whether it’s thought to be regressive or tapping into something primal and timeless. I gave it the benefit of the doubt, and in doing so, went with its gut-driven humanity. Comparisons to The Revenant are obvious – rough terrain, snowy landscapes, natural lighting – but unlike that film, Iceman never trades heart for aesthetic.
It’s even quieter than The Revenant too, with sparse dialogue spoken in the now-extinct Rhaetic language heard mostly in the first fifteen minutes. Eschewing subtitles, Randau trusts both actors and audience to understand intonation and gestures, furthering the film’s universality. Kind words spoken to a son always manage to sound the same, and a scream of anguish is easily identified in any part of the world.
As time passes and Kelab is given the opportunity to think upon what has happened, a silent struggle with faith happens behind his eyes. His friends and family gone, what happens after he gets his revenge, if he gets it at all? His tangible loss is tied to another more existential one, mirrored in beautiful yet lonely shots of him crossing the land. He is terrifyingly alone.
It might not reinvent the wheel, but it works, appealing to an animalistic need to act. Yet, there’s a futility to it all – what other choice did he have? Cradling an infant that isn’t his acts as a reminder of his loss, but his paternal instincts are strong enough to fight for the preservation of his clan. It suggests he fights not only for personal revenge, but for survival of a bigger kind. The question of what happens after the fight or flight response subsides hangs over the film, and we are left to wonder if someone who has lost his family and his faith can really come back from the brink at all.
We don’t actually know all that much about Ötzi, but Randau has bestowed upon him a kind of folk tale of a man driven by something innate to do all that he feels he can. Like all of the best folk tales, we completely understand why.