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A scene from the movie Iceman

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Europe’s 5000-year-old frozen man gets his own movie—but don’t expect to understand what he says

Since his discovery by two hikers at the Austrian-Italian border in 1991, Ötzi has been a worldwide sensation: Europe’s oldest known natural human mummy has attracted thousands of admirers and scientists who have examined every inch of the “Iceman’s” body—from his fingernails to his intestines. Now, the 40-something-year-old Stone Age hunter-gatherer, who’s believed to have been killed some 5300 years ago on the Ötztal Alps, has his own movie.

Der Mann aus dem Eis (Iceman) debuted in German cinemas last month and will be released in the rest of Europe and North America next spring. Directed by Berlin-based filmmaker Felix Randau, the $4 million film is a fictional account of Ötzi’s life, all in an invented language with no subtitles. Randau was advised by scientists at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where Ötzi’s body is on display.

He chatted with Science about the film. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why did you decide to do a movie about Ötzi?

A: It happened by accident. Three years ago, at a flea market in Berlin, I found a 20-year-old copy of a famous German magazine whose cover story was about Ötzi. I got curious, bought that copy, and started reading books and watching documentaries. After writing the first draft, I contacted the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology and met its director, Angelika Fleckinger, who became a scientific adviser for the movie.

Q: What’s the story about?

A: It’s about a hunter-gatherer who lives in a small tribe in the south Tyrolean Alps. When a rival tribe attacks his village, kills his family, and steals a mirror that the tribe used during religious ceremonies, the Iceman embarks on an odyssey through the Alps to get the mirror back. It’s a revenge story, but to me there’s a deeper meaning: It’s a spiritual adventure, a story about the never-ending struggle between man and God. It’s also a parable about the vicious circle of violence: In the movie people are hurting each other, and Ötzi tries to break out of this vicious circle.

Q: What is the evidence that things happened that way?

Film director Felix Randau

Sabine Cattaneo/LocarnoFestival

A: Of course it’s a fictional story, but we had a profiler check all the facts we know about Ötzi and his death, and he told us everything could have happened the way we tell it. Almost every scientific fact made it into the movie. We sewed a costume just like the one found on the mummy: In the movie Ötzi wears goat leather leggings, a brown bear fur hat, and a coat made of goat and sheep hides stitched together. He carries a copper ax, a quiver of arrows, and a net to hunt rabbits, and his body is covered in dozens of tattoos. He dies after being struck in the back with an arrow and hitting his head on a stone. His hair is brown but, unlike what DNA analysis has shown, his eyes are blue. That’s just because the actor who plays Ötzi has blue eyes and we decided not to change it.

Q: Ötzi may have suffered from gastritistooth decay, and Lyme disease before he died. How much of this appears in the movie?

A: The scientific advisers told us that these diseases likely didn’t cripple him. He was certainly able to walk long distances, so we decided to depict him as an old, for that time, but generally healthy man.

Q: How did you decide about the scenery and the set props?

A: We did a lot of research, and the things that were found on Ötzi’s body, such as tools and clothes, were used to create all the props we needed. There were things we didn’t know, for example how huts in south Tyrol looked like 5000 years ago, but we did know how huts looked like near Lake Constance [about 300 kilometers away] at that time.

Q: What language is Ötzi speaking in the movie?

A: To me it always sounds ridiculous when in a movie about ancient Rome, people speak BBC English. So I contacted a linguist who reconstructed the language that could have been spoken in south Tyrol 5000 years ago. He took Rhaetic [a language spoken in the eastern Alps in pre-Roman and Roman times] and reconstructed it back to some ancient form. It’s not a real language and there are no subtitles in the movie, but you don’t have to understand the language because there isn’t much talking.

Q: What was the most time-consuming part of the project?

A: Finding the right location was really hard because we needed pristine areas, which are rare nowadays. Also doing all the research took a long time. Shooting itself was the easiest part of the project, it took only 35 days.

Q: Where was the movie filmed?

A: We shot 80% of it in south Tyrol, just a few kilometers from the place where Ötzi’s mummy was found. There was no studio shooting, they’re all real locations. At some point in the movie there’s an ice storm: That’s a real one.

*Correction, 18 December, 1:11 p.m.: This story originally misspelled the word Rhaetic. It has been updated to the correct spelling.