Saturday, February 13, 2016

Film Atlas (Estonia): The Dead Mountaineer's Hotel

Country: Estonia
Title: The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel / ‘Hukkunud Alpinisti’ Hotell (1979)
An avalanche traps a police detective, an innkeeper, a physicist, a terrorist and the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Moses in a remote alpine ski resort. The same night, a semi-delirious stranger shows up and a Scandanavian fop is found dead, his neck twisted by some impossibly powerful force. It’s up to the policeman, Inspector Glebsky, to solve the case. Although the setup is consciously designed like an Agatha Christie mystery, it was actually penned by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Russia’s most famous sci-fi writers, and they have something much weirder in mind. The innkeeper speculates about zombies. Glebsky suspects hypnosis. The physicist raves about aliens. This is a case that logic cannot solve.

Although the fashion on display is admittedly dated, Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel was impressively ahead of its time in terms of style, structure and theme. The night-shrouded neo-noir cinematography and Sven Grunberg’s ominously dreamy synth score anticipate cinema’s dominate mood through the 1980s. The self-conscious deconstruction of mystery conventions (isolated locale, locked room murder, dogged cop, femme fatale, flowery narration) and the unlikely fusion of genres feels strikingly modern.

The initially sympathetic Glebsky ultimately winds up as an anti-hero who, blinded by an outmoded obedience to logic, duty, and authority, fails to adjust to a dramatically changing world. It’s a theme that registered as a powerful anti-Soviet sentiment during the Cold War (In a final monologue Glebsky justifies murder by saying, “Either they were human, and thus criminals who got what they deserved, or they were inhuman and thus can’t be murdered.”) and continued to be relevant now, when scientific progress has far outpaced the layperson’s ability to understand the reality we live in.

Some other random notes:
  • The film was released in August 1979, within months of the vastly more famous Strugatsky adaptation Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
  • At one point a character ponders, “Maybe I’m an android? How would I even know?” anticipating Android (1982) and Blade Runner (1982) to name a few.
  • The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn novel was only recently translated into English (March 2015), but it has previously been adapted as a notoriously awful videogame. The player spends 5 hours doing chores in a hotel before having the entire plot narrated during the last 20 minutes, apparently due to funding being abruptly cut.
  • Those of you who’ve read this blog since its giallo days know that I enjoy sourcing paintings that appear in the background of films. The large mural that the innkeeper claims is the dead mountaineer of the title, is actually Chuck Close’s mezzotint of artist Keith Hollington. A version hangs in my home city of St. Louis, but the one used here appears to match the version in the Pace Gallery of New York City.
Chuck Close's large-scale portrait "Keith."
My Favorites:
The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel
Spring / Kevade
Franky & Wendy

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