Adapted from their own 1970 novel "Otel 'U Pogibshego Alpinista'" by Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy (the future screenwriters of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker), the Estonian production of Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel begins as a claustrophobic whodunnit in which an Estonian detective, Inspector Peter Glebsky (Uldis Pucitis) is summoned to an isolated hotel in a remote mountain region to investigate a murder – except it hasn’t yet occurred.
Thinking the whole trip’s a prank, he calls his superior from the concierge’s desk, and cleverly negotiates an overnight stay, figuring there’s no point in rushing home when he could enjoy the spectacular view and modern décor of the chic, compact resort that was named after a mountaineer who (surprise) died tumbling off a cliff. Or was it murder?
The hotel’s concierge / owner, Alex Snewahr (Juri Jarvet) still looks after the dead man’s massive Saint Bernard, and the beast remains loyally seated at the foot of a giant portrait of his master – an image deliberately mimicking the famous Che Guevera mug, augmented with a singular neon stroke above the head. Lull the dog also has a special skill: when told a room number, he dutifully grabs a guest’s bag in its massive maw, and takes it to the precise destination without error.
On the roof’s deck Glebsky encounters Hinckus (Mikk Mikiver), a testy, fur-coated man taking in the stark sunlight to ease the effects of lingering TB, and at dinner the detective is introduced to the remaining guests reminiscent of an Agatha Christie whodunnit: romantic couple Olaf and Brun; government scientist / amateur hiker Simonet, who literally climbs hotel walls because of the heavily snow-covered hills, older couple Mr. & Mrs. Moses; and Snewahr’s zaftig assistant Kaisa. The dinner conversation is amiable yet impressionistic, with one subject getting a round of opinions from each member: the existence of aliens.
A game of pool and a short jaunt at the disco enliven Glebsky’s stay, and he briefly flirts with Mrs. Moses (I. Kriauzaite) before stepping out for a cigarette. When he reaches in his pocket for the matches, he finds a note culled from magazine letters, informing him Hinckus is a killer-in-waiting, and a victim is not far off. Glebsky then remembers Hinckus was absent from dinner, and he sees his silhouette still reclining on the roof’s deck. When he hurries up top, he finds the fur coat’s been packed with snow, and Hinkus has vanished.
Back inside the hotel, Glebsky encounters further weirdness: Olaf is discovered dead with a suitcase close to his frozen hand; Simonet swears he found Mrs. Moses dead, and Hinckus is discovered tied down to a table behind a hidden door. To make things tougher for Glebsky, the group is trapped after an avalanche smothers the road, restricting them to the hotel interior for what may be an entire week with a waning backup power supply.
As Glebsky speaks to his suspects and collates various impressions, he begins to assume Olaf’s murder was a criminal gang’s payback for a recent bank heist, but it’s only at the end of the film that he realizes he went down the wrong path, believing in plain-as-day gangsters instead of characters more supernatural in essence.
As he explains to the audience in a sepia-toned, on-camera coda, he makes no apologies for how he handled the strange events during his stay, but he doesn’t back down from believing the entire murder plot was tied to something less earthbound.
The real gist of the story is a bit clumsily told, largely because there’s a sense too much information may have been pared down in the writing and / or editing stage to prevent the film’s dreamy momentum from turning stale with too many dead-end leads and philosophical discussions between peculiar characters.
Hotel’s main plot: the Moses couple and young lovers Olaf and Brun are a mix of real aliens and protectorate robots who need the suitcase to escape and return to their planet. After a sympathetic Snewahr reclaims the suitcase from its hiding place (much like the magic bomb in Kiss Me Deadly, we never see its contents, save for blurry blinking lights), Olaf is brought back to life, and the quartet make their break in the morning for the mountains to avoid being hunted by a helicopter that’s either gangsters arriving to finish the job, or the government coming to eradicate evidence of an alien encounter.
From a plotting angle, Hotel is far too convoluted and cryptic to make sense in one sitting, and there are a few abrupt scene jumps that lessen the opportunity to absorb an important scene’s strange events – such as Hinckus describing Mrs. Moses’ as dead, but seeing her alive when he and Glebsky rush to her room.
Director Grigori Kromanov also handles the aliens’ ski flight flight a little clumsily: the rope that’s pulling each of the two pairs is seen in quick shots, ruining the illusion of aliens possessing dramatic speed capabilities.
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Those specific flaws aside, Hotel is one hell of a mood piece, and director Kromanov maximizes every angle of his location and sets to create an intense puzzle film, maintaining unease in daylight and after the sun has set.
The hotel is a tight structure where rooms and leisure centres are a few steps from each other, and being 1979, the design and décor is filled with mirrors, glass panels, tiles, and whole sheets of reflective black panels. There is no place to hide from others nor oneself: an increasingly frustrated and baffled Glebsky is often photographed with his face reflected in mirrored door frames and walls, and it’s easy for characters to stand in one place and see through multiple rooms or hallways, increasing their likelihood of seeing something peculiar, or likely to doom them from a chance encounter with forbidden information.
Kromanov also avoids wide angles, and keeps the camera lens tightly trained on characters at all times once they’re inside the hotel. The few views of outside always contain a mountain peak to enhance a sense of isolation, and a few camera moves often follow a character as he or she passes by mirrored surfaces, and moves around the extreme angles that make up the hotel’s staircase and walkways. (The film’s disjointed location is also enhanced by Estonian characters lodged in a hotel with French signage, and Glebsky hearing French weather reports on the radio when he approaches the hotel.)
The suggestion of supernatural forces is conveyed early in the film when Glebsky sees Olaf and Brun sky gliding, each appearing a bit too comfortable in the high altitude environs above the hotel, but it’s Sven Grunberg’s music that genuine gives the film its otherworldly tone, particularly when matched with Juri Sillart’s superb cinematography. Like the old Agfa stock used in early Soviet films, the film’s blues are rich aquamarine, and the white of the snow that blankets the mountains adds stark contrast.
Right from the title sequence where Glebsky is driving to the remote hotel, Kromanov repeatedly intercuts images of the mountains, capturing every nuance of their beauty and terror, and their graphic recurrence throughout the film ensures we never doubt the group of oddball characters is never far off from being smothered by an errant avalanche.
Two avalanches are in fact intercut in the film, and they’re photographed with great elegance and menace, angled to the point where the snow will eventually smother the locked-off camera. There’s also wispy cloud formations that Kromanov uses in the end to poetically punctuate the fate of the doomed characters, and Grunberg’s score nails their sadness and the film’s weird aura through beautiful electronic tonalities.
Some critics have compared Hotel as a slight precursor to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), in terms of its look, its synthetic music, and of procedural detective tropes transposed to a different genre. There’s also the theme of an archetypal character – a homicide cop – whose earthy techniques are no match for the unusual characters he confronts; and not unlike the stubborn Deckard, he gets increasingly beat up and scarred by the end of the film.
As a mood piece and an example of an intricately constructed genre transgression, Hotel is unlike any other work, and the film deserves a proper special edition release on Blu-ray. The high-contrast, moody lighting also maximizes details of the set décor and Puciti's long, craggy face, and the saturated colours would look amazing in HD.
The current print being screened in rep cinemas and cinematheques is a restored version apparently conducted by the Estonian Film Foundation, and features hardcoded dual English and Russian subtitles positioned slightly higher in the frame than standard subs. Although the IMDB lists the ratio at 2.35:1, the current projected ratio is 1.33, which looks quite natural.
The soundtrack mix is very rich and resonant, and shows off Grunberg’s sometimes thunderous music and the subtleties of the excellent sound editing, which features nuances like clattering footsteps as characters move throughout the glossy hotel; and little buzzing sounds for the flickering fluorescent lights that start to conk out after the first power failure.
The film’s story was later adapted into a videogame by a Russian firm, and as of this writing is only available in Russia and Germany.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan