The 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.
Almost 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?
In 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.
Pound 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 distinctive.
Frankly, 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.
Priit 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 with Liiv.