The last film from the Estonian director Grigori Kromanov, Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979) is based on the 1970 novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, first published in English under the title Inspector Glebsky’s Puzzle.
The Strugatsky brothers’ works were often adapted for screen, resulting in cinematic masterpieces such as Andrei Tarkovksy’s Stalker (1979) and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God (2013). Kromanov’s beautifully-shot, lesser-known sci-fi mystery doesn’t quite reach the same artistic peaks, but Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel is still well worth the watch.
Set somewhere in Europe (where characters with Baltic, Scandinavian, and Slavic names listen to French radio and write notes in French), the film was actually shot at Kazakhstan’s Shymbulak ski resort. It opens with a panorama of stunning mountain views as Inspector Peter Glebsky makes his way to the titular hotel. A serious man in a leather trench coat, the detective journeys to this remote spot thanks to an anonymous phone call, only to realise that there is nothing to investigate — yet. When the inspector meets the hotel guests, he finds them odd, and the more time he spends with them, the less he understands who they may be. To make matters worse, the hotel is cut off from civilisation by an avalanche soon after Glebsky’s arrival, creating a classic closed-circle mystery. But the otherworldly soundtrack hints that there might be more than a sci-fi twist to this slowly unfolding story.
The film’s main achievement is its cool and reserved yet deeply disturbing aesthetic. The story’s prophetic message, that power eventually leads to tragedy, is offset by the immensely creative production of the film, which includes brilliant camera work by Jüri Sillart, a fantastic score by Sven Grünberg, and masterful set design by Tõnu Virve. Its uncanny ambience and quirky characters are vaguely reminiscent of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: just imagine if the chirpy special agent Dale Cooper was replaced by a stiff Soviet policeman.
Predictably, fans of the book will claim that the original Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel is more complex and nuanced than the movie adaptation. Interestingly, in the original, we’re not told the gender of Brun, and the confused Glebsky cannot figure out if he is dealing with a man or a woman. This quasi-queer plot line, however, is virtually absent in the film.
The book inspired two other adaptations by Polish directors Stanisław Wohl (1976) and Michał Kwieciński (1993) — and for viewers who want to immerse themselves further into the mysterious world of Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel, there is even an eponymous video game from 2009.
Watch with English, Russian, Spanish, or Portuguese subtitles on Eastern European Movies.
You can check out the Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979) trailer from Church of Film. Just make sure to stop watching at 1:45 to avoid spoilers!