last thing a party of Estonian hikers wants to hear is the rumblings of an avalanche
while trudging through the Siberian mountains. Unfortunately, they will find
themselves in even greater danger once they get down the slope. The snow will
give them a much fairer shake than the corrupt Soviet bureaucrat that controls
the nearest Buryatian village. Inspired by an ill-fated Siberian outing from
his youth (he coyly keeps the details vague), screenwriter-director Urmas Eero
Liiv gives Into Thin Air an Orwellian
twist in Ghost Mountaineer (trailer here), which screens as
part of Panorama Europe 2016 at the Museum of the Moving Image.
immediately, this small band of Estonian college students splits into factions.
There are the specimen-minded geology students out for nephrite samples led by
Olle on one side and hard-partying Eero and his fellow biologist on the other.
Rather awkwardly, Olle’s neglected girlfriend Inge is stuck in between. As the
self-appointed leader, Olle only has himself to blame for ignoring potential
danger signals. Unfortunately, instead of admitting mistakes, he insists on guiding
the party through dangerous terrain. One freak snowslide later, Olle is buried
beyond anyone’s reach. Or is he?
a decidedly uncomfortable turn of events, the local Soviet militia chief’s men
quickly find Olle’s body on the mountain face. They claim he wasn’t even snowbound,
but showed tell-tale signs of a beating. Suspicion quickly falls on Eero, since
he was the last person to see Olle alive. His interest in Inge is not exactly a
closely guarded secret either. Further complicating their tenuous position, the
militia chief fails to find the proper permits on Olle’s body (as they knew he
wouldn’t), but to their genuine surprise, he turns up one of the mountain
crystals the locals consider sacred. Whether it was Eero who killed Olle, or
the legendary “Ghost Mountaineer” from his campfire stories, they are all in a
whole lot of trouble.
for pound, Mountaineer must have more
diverse and pernicious sources of peril than any other film. Frankly, the harsh
elements are the least of their concern. They also must survive spectral
alpinists, resentful superstitious rustics, ruthless Communist apparatchiks,
and the generally oppressive nature of the Communist system. It is especially
bad for them as Estonians (or “Germans,” as the militia insist on calling
them). That sure makes it hard to categorize the film, but it is definitely
part of the film’ merit is the total sense of uncertainty Liiv sustains
throughout. Somewhat like the events documented in Nick Ryan’s The Summit, there is a murky mystery
surrounding Olle’s fate, but the truth could be anything, including
supernatural causes. However, Liiv displays no vanity in the way he depicts his
analog, the roguish Eero. We are never quite sure about him either.
Pius is a key collaborator for Liiv, helping reinforce the ambiguity with his
charismatically jerkish performance as Eero. Likewise, Vadim Andreev is ferociously
sinister and unsettlingly erratic as the crooked militiaman. We understand
right from the start, there is a good reason why he has been assigned to this remote
posting. Most of the other Y Chromosomes in the Estonian hiking party do not make
much of an impression, but Liis Lass is quietly devastating as the serious-minded
Anne, who is reportedly modeled on the only survivor who refused to cooperate
Even after seeing Mountaineer it is hard to say what it is (horror film, survival
story, dystopian allegory), but that is rather cool. One thing is clear though.
Soviet Socialism was no picnic for the Baltic people. Very highly recommended
for genre-straddling genre-fans, Ghost
Mountaineer screens Sunday afternoon (5/8) at MoMI, as part of this year’s
Labels: Communism, Estonian cinema, Panorama Europe '16