In September 1991, a German couple hiking off-trail in the Ötztal Alps, bordering Italy and Austria, came across a body. That in itself wasn’t so strange. Alpine mountaineers who meet their death often turn up after the summer thaw. But what was extraordinary is what authorities gradually realized: This wasn’t a recently deceased climber, but a mummified corpse dating back 5,000 years, preserved under a glacier that was now melting away. His Copper Age accoutrements were found nearby, including leather clothing, bearskin cap, birch-bark containers, dagger, wooden quiver, and copper axe.
In the years since, scientists have had a field day poking and probing the oldest mummy in Europe, whom they named Ötzi and constructed an entire museum around in Bolzano. They’ve analyzed his DNA and cell structure, done 3D reconstructions of his cranium and CAT scans of his body. They’ve sent probes into his stomach to determine his last meal. The herbs found there come from one particular valley, so they can retrace his steps that final day, which mysteriously took him up to 9,000 feet, on an icy glacier. A cut in his hand indicates hand-to-hand combat a few days earlier. X-rays revealed a flint arrowhead buried in his back. That wound, they believe, was fatal, which suggests he was pursued and murdered.
For storytellers, an ice-age criminal case is hard to resist. Documentary filmmakers were first in line with projects about Ötzi, including Iceman Autopsy (2011), part of PBS’s Nova series.
But no one has turned Ötzi’s cold case into a dramatic feature—until Iceman, which opens this Friday. German writer/director Felix Randau offers a narrative about Ötzi’s backstory and what he was doing up on that glacier. And how he might have been both the hunter and the hunted.
For mise-en-scène, Randau relies on the science that grew out of Ötzi’s find and what archeologists know about Copper Age culture. Ötzi’s clothes, the nature of his house and village, how he’d hunt and make fire from live embers carried in a satchel—all this was fact-based. Additionally, the director worked with a linguist to come up with an early form of the Rhaetian language (the Raeti were a confederation of tribes in the eastern Alps) for the spare, unsubtitled dialog.
For the drama, however, Randau’s imagination was free to roam, and he penned a rousing adventure and revenge story. The film begins in Ötzi’s village, where he is leader of a small clan. One day while Ötzi is out hunting, a rival tribe raids the village, killing man, woman, and child and burning it to the ground. Alerted by the smoke, Ötzi returns to discover the travesty—and spot the marauders exiting on a distant trail. From there, the story becomes a classic chase and revenge story, though the hazards are older than Old World: glacial crevices that can trap a man alive; trails that along mountain gorges where one false step can prove fatal; subzero temperatures and relentless winds on ice shelfs; and the deadly spears and arrows of foes.
“This is the great strength of fiction,” says the director. “Gaps can be filled in and painted over, something documentary cannot do.” Still, the story is plausible, he notes: “After the shooting had begun, a profiler reconstructed the murder case and came to a version of events that was similar to the one we tell in the film.”
When shooting in the Alps, Randau didn’t seek out picture-postcard vistas. Rather, he believed that Ötzi’s people would have had a different, more adversarial relationship to nature, seeing the mountains as harsh, hostile environments, indifferent to human needs.
However, if you’re a modern-day hiker in Südtirol, you’ll recognize the kind of boulder-strewn trails and deep pine forests that Ötzi inhabits. Certainly, anyone who comes on our ALPS & DOLOMITES wine + hiking tour will. (But you’ll find no ice crevices on our summertime treks, we promise!)
What’s more, you can see Ötzi in person, preserved under a glaze of ice inside a refrigerated cell in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, the four-floor museum devoted to Ötzi and his civilization. It’s well worth an afternoon’s stay.
If you ever intend to visit Südtirol, go see this film. It’s a good yarn and not as hokey as you’d think. Iceman opens this Friday, March 15, in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle and is available on demand through iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, and other streaming services.