The Iceman Cometh

Project: The Living World of Ötzi the Iceman...
October 1, 1999

Project: The Living World of Ötzi the Iceman

Description: In this 52-minute/90-minute documentary, director Kurt Mündl and his team re-create life in Central Europe during the late Stone Age using evidence gathered from research into Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old man discovered by German hikers in Austria in 1991.

Producer: ZDF Enterprises (Germany)

Coproducers: ZDF (Germany), ORF (Austria), Discovery Channel U.S., SVT (Sweden), Channel 4 (U.K.), Mediaset (Italy)

Director: Kurt Mündl

Budget: US$800,000 (TV version); US$1,200,000 (Theatrical version)

In September 1991, the mummified body of a man was discovered inside a glacier by vacationing hikers in Austria. The man, nicknamed ‘Ötzi’ in Austria and ‘Frozen Fritz’ in the U.S., was found to have died over 5,000 years earlier. Research revealed what he had eaten for his last meal, his past injuries, and how he had lived.

The discovery, touted by scientists as one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time, garnered international press attention and inspired various documentaries on the subject. The Living World of Ötzi the Iceman is one such project Ð the only one to focus on the mummy before his death. Using replicas of tools and weapons found on Ötzi, along with dramatic re-enactments of life during that period, it attempts to re-create the way the iceman and his tribe survived in the Stone Age.

September 1997: Walter Köhler (ORF), Steve Burns (Discovery U.S.), and Kurt Mündl (Austria’s Power of Earth Productions) meet at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in Wyoming, U.S., and Ð shortly after Ð in Vienna. In a brainstorming session between Burns and Mündl, the idea for Ötzi is born. Mündl is initially skeptical about the project, given the amount of information already documented on the mummy, but soon decides otherwise: ‘To make [Ötzi] alive, and to give him a face, was a very thrilling task for me as a director.’ Mündl, who has produced well-received projects for ZDF’s nature strand Naturzeit in the past, decides to pitch the project to ZDF Enterprises.

October 1997: Mündl presents the idea of a project on Ötzi to zdf and ZDF Enterprises, who immediately express their interest, convinced that Ötzi’s re-enacted story Ð something never before attempted Ð could be very successful. Later the same month, Renate Marel at ZDF and Walter Köhler at ORF agree to coproduce the project, with ZDF and ORF contributing together more than one third of the budget. ZDF Enterprises knows that Discovery U.S. is also interested, due to Burns’ initial interest and his past working relationship with Mündl. ZDF Enterprises agrees to pre-finance the project, budgeted at US$800,000. After talking to Burns, Discovery agrees to come in as another coproducer.

At the same time, ZDF Enterprises and Mündl start talking about releasing a theatrical version of the project. Says Kristina Hollstein, director of documentary productions, ZDF Enterprises: ‘From the very beginning we had talked about how Ötzi might be an interesting cinema production, so we already had in mind a theatrical release. Through the techniques Kurt employed, we knew that it might be a good film for cinema.’

Winter 1997: Mündl writes the script for Ötzi. The project Ð a re-enactment of the last year of Ötzi’s life Ð requires careful research to ensure scientific accuracy. Three different scripts are written. The text of the narrator is developed much later, after the project is edited. The script is written within ten weeks.

January 1998: ZDF Enterprises signs a commission contract with Mündl, and Discovery U.S. gives ZDF Enterprises a written agreement to come in as a coproducer. Because the project has a very long production period, ZDF Enterprises says that it cannot finance all 365 days of shooting. They propose, however, that Mündl produce another film for them in addition to Ötzi. This will allow Mündl to work on the second project if inclement weather doesn’t allow him to film Ötzi. Mündl agrees to produce these two films over two years and, as a result, gets a higher budget on Ötzi.

January – February 1998: ZDF Enterprises approaches other potential coproduction partners, in the hopes of raising more of the budget. The project is introduced to NHK Japan, but they decide they aren’t interested in coming in as coproducers.

Early February 1998: Mündl re-creates the Austrian village in which Ötzi would have lived. After location scouting, a small county in Austria called Carinthia is selected to act as the setting for Ötzi. With support from a town in Carinthia called Ferlach, the construction of the village begins. The production team researches how houses in the area would have looked 5,000 years earlier. Mündl then draws up building plans for the Stone Age houses, making sure to add climate variants (such as snow) to the plans of the finished set. The government of Carinthia provides accomodation for the crew, as well as building materials and manual laborers to help construct sets. In return, the production helps attract publicity for the region.

Late February 1998: Shooting begins on The Living World of Ötzi the Iceman, with actors re-creating the roles of villagers. Explains Mündl: ‘We filmed for 14 months straight, since the movie documents four chronological seasons [of Ötzi's life].’ Unknown actors are brought in to lend to the credibility of the project, as Mündl fears ‘a famous star would have taken away from the real story.’ The re-created village includes 10-12 people, including women, children and elderly members. To ensure authenticity, primeval forms of seeds are provided by experts from several European countries in order to replicate Stone Age plants. Animals are also transported to the hard-to-reach location.

One of the biggest obstacles during filming is the weather. As the majority of the shoot takes place in outdoor locations, the crew is very dependent on good conditions to complete the project. The mountainous terrain adds to the weather instability.

Part of the re-creation hinges on being able to replicate the actions of various wild animals living during that period, including bisons, aurochs (wild cattle) and bear. This becomes an added concern for the crew, as the animals must perform for long shoots. Says Mündl: ‘It could be very dangerous despite precautions if, for example, a bear who attacks the village in the movie [has a hostile reaction] to the fur coverings [worn by] the actors.’ One animal trainer is bitten by a brown bear during shooting. Luckily, no other injuries occur.

March 1998: ZDF Enterprises gets the final confirmation from Discovery U.S., which agrees to invest in the project. More than half of the budget is now accounted for.

April 1998: Set building finishes on Ötzi. ZDF Enterprises talks with different broadcasters at MIP-TV, in the hopes of finding broadcast partners in the key territories of France, Great Britain, Italy and Japan. The first broadcaster to express interest is Bo G. Erikson from svt in Sweden.

ZDF Enterprises then approaches French broadcasters, but they are either not interested due to the re-enactment aspect of Ötzi, or don’t want to enter into a coproduction agreement. The only French broadcaster ZDF Enterprises doesn’t approach is ARTE, which has a silmultaneous German feed. Explains Hollstein: ‘We didn’t approach ARTE, because ZDF has the first terrestrial transmission in Germany, and so it would have been impossible to get arte as a coproducer.’ By then, distributor Télé Images has already expressed interest in the French rights to the program.

ZDF Enterprises also has discussions with Italian public broadcaster RAI, which expresses its interest at MIP-TV. Explains Hollstein about her decision to approach Italian broadcasters: ‘Ötzi the mummy was found in Austria, but at the Italian border and at some point scientists said the mummy was found in Italy. It is in Italy right now in a museum. So, I’m convinced that it’s a very Italian topic.’

Spring 1998: ZDF Enterprises proposes the program to the U.K.’s Channel 4.

June 1998: SVT commits to come in as a coproducer.

Summer 1998: Discussions begin about the the additional costs required for the production of a theatrical version. Mündl and ZDF Enterprises ultimately decide to treat the cinema version as a coproduction between Power of Earth and ZDF Enterprises, and agree to cover the added cost of the theatrical version (US$400,000) between them. In 1999, the contract for the theatrical version is signed.

October 1998: A trailer for the project is completed and presented to a focus group of programming excecutives at MIPCOM. Hollstein meets with Channel 4′s Tim Gardam and he shows great interest in the trailer. Channel 4 agrees to come in as a coproducer. Eighty percent of the budget is now complete.

ZDF Enterprises approaches cinema distributors in Germany. The project is not an easy sell, however, because no rough cut is available to screen. Distributors tell ZDF Enterprises to come back with a proposal when a rough cut is available. An added problem is that ZDF and ORF want to air the film in early 2000 (ORF will later agree to air Ötzi in April of 2000). Because there needs to be a certain amount of time between theatrical and television release dates, it is too soon to start searching for a cinema release, as filming has not yet wrapped. Discussions show that it is possible to find principal interest, but not commitment.

December 1998: As discussions with rai extend over a period of one year without a firm commitment, ZDF Enterprises approaches Mediaset (Andrea Broglia) in Italy.

January 1999: Mündl starts talking with Constantin Film (Christian Langhammer) in Austria about distributing the film for cinema in that country. Constantin is immediately interested.

April 1999: ZDF Enterprises confirms with Mediaset, which also comes in as a coproduction partner.

ZDF Enterprises agrees to cover the 5% of the budget that remains. Filming wraps. Télé Images (Marie-France Han) confirms its interest in cinema and TV rights in France.

May 1999: Post-production starts at Power of Earth Productions in Austria, where Ötzi is edited and digitized by Mündl and editor/cameraman Franz Cee. Sound is added in the studio of Erich Buchebner, the composer. The documentary, a project of ‘the superlatives,’ according to Mündl, uses shooting techniques most often employed in big budget action films, including special effects, unusual tracking and crane shots, in order to ‘realize almost anything impossible.’

Early July 1999: Rough cuts are completed on the project. The length of Ötzi comes in at 52 minutes for the TV version and 90 minutes for the theatrical version. Worldwide rights for Ötzi go to ZDF Enterprises, with all the coproduction partners getting TV rights in their respective countries.

Late July 1999: ZDF Enterprises starts approaching cinema distributors in Germany with rough cuts in hand. After viewing the rough cut, the distribs’ reaction to the project is now positive. ZDF Enterprises receives four offers. Because the mummy is well-known in Europe, explains Hollstein, it’s a good topic for a cinema film because people already know what they can expect and what the story is about. ZDF Enterprises also talks to cinema distributors in other European countries. Hollstein is confident that once the film is screened at festivals, other theatrical partners will be found worldwide.

August 1999: ZDF agrees to postpone its air date to the end of 2000. This gives more flexibility on the theatrical release in Germany. Movienet (Lothar Seelandt) agrees to release the film on 100 screens in Germany in January of 2000. This will also be when the Swedish-language TV version is completed.

Autumn/Winter 1999: Simultaneous completion of both versions. Mediaset starts producing the Italian-language version. Channel 4 and Mediaset will likely air the project during this time period, but no dates are confirmed.

October 1999: Thirty copies of the theatrical version of Ötzi are released in Austria by Constantin Film. ZDF Enterprises represents The Living World of Ötzi the Iceman at MIPCOM.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.