Ötzi the Iceman is Europe’s oldest known human mummy, believed to be more than 5,300 years old. When the body was discovered in the Ötztal Alps, on the Austrian-Italian border, it was so perfectly preserved the couple that found it initially mistook it for the remains a fellow mountaineer. However, unlike the more familiar Ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Ötzi was not mummified intentionally. Rather the glacier that he died on froze his body, while the humidity in the ice preserved his skin and organs for several millennia. But that doesn’t mean the iceman died of natural causes: an arrowhead was found in Ötzi’s left shoulder.
Inspired by this Copper Age murder mystery, writer and director Felix Randau has created Iceman, a thrilling epic that imagines how Ötzi came to die avenging his tribe. Told with minimal dialogue in an extinct dialect and without subtitles, with stunning cinematography of the icy Alps, the movie is part Revenant, part Apocalypto. We spoke to the writer-director to find out how he also made sure it was equal parts authentic and engaging.
When did you first learn about Ötzi and what inspired you to make a film about him?
I heard of the mummy right after the discovery [in 1991], but the idea of making a film based on Ötzi’s fate came only four years ago. It is with film ideas as well as with love: you can live next to another person for years, and suddenly you realize that you have fallen in love. And you wonder how you could have been so blind before. But the film is only superficially about Ötzi. Behind it hides a timeless parabola about the circle of violence.
How did you conduct your research for the film?
My claim was to be as authentic as possible, so not to tell a fairy tale, even if the film is of course a fiction. So I collected all the available facts about Ötzi, built the framework of the story out of it and then invented the missing parts. But: Everything could have been exactly as we tell it in the movie.
As Ötzi’s body is so well preserved, scientists have been able to identify so much about his health and lifestyle – even identifying his last meal. How did you choose what to include and exclude from the movie?
I took out everything that did not seem relevant to me for the basic story. Like any other art form, film is compacted life.
Why did you choose to use early Rhaetian language in the film and how do you think the audience will respond to it without subtitles?
I think it’s ridiculous if actors speak modern languages in a historical film. If the characters in a movie taking place in ancient Rome speak polished Oxford English, I’m kicked out of the story. So we used a language invented by a linguist which could have been spoken at that time. The movie is easy to understand without subtitles, as all information opens up through action.
Some early reviews of the film have compared it to Apocalypto, how do you feel about that?
There are certainly some parallels. Both films play in an archaic world and do so without long-winded dialogues. But the stories are completely different. I can not and will not judge Mel Gibson as a private person, but he is a great director. His last film is also an overlooked masterpiece.
The cinematography in the film is stunning. How did you pick the locations?
Nature is the second lead in this movie. And so we did the “casting” very carefully. Nature is not good or bad, I think, nature is just unconcerned. It took us about half a year to find the right locations in South Tyrol.
Iceman will be released in cinemas across the UK from Friday 27 July, rated 15.