Thursday, September 02, 2021

Dead Mountain, on Topic

Kholat Syakhi literally translates to “Dead Mountain,” so it sounds like a super fun location for a winter hike. Nine Russian hikers died on the slope of the Ural Mountain in 1959, but the bizarre circumstances surrounding their deaths and the subsequent secrecy of the Soviet authorities gave rise to a host of conspiracies theories among suspicious Russians. Purportedly based on the declassified files of the latest, new-and-improved investigation of the so-called Dyatlov Pass Incident, showrunner-directors Vaeriy Fedorovich and Evgeny Nikishov address a good deal of the lore surrounding the tragedy, but they never really supply satisfying answers in the eight-episode dramatic mini-series Dead Mountain, which premieres today on Topic.

The hiking party has long been missing when fictional KGB Major Oleg Kostin is summoned from Moscow to investigate, but officially he is not really there. Why would a high-ranking KGB official be assigned to the presumed disappearance of eight provincial students and their thirtysomething guide?
Dead Mountain never really explains that fundamental plot point, but it eventually reveals Sasha Zolotaryov, the older man, was in fact a colleague of sorts. (Liam Le Guillou’s documentary Unknown Compelling Force also points out that several of the eight Ural Polytechnic Institute students were studying nuclear power, possibly making them of greater interest to state security.)

The series starts with Kostin’s dogged investigation, filmed in washed-out Soviet color, but frequently flashes back to the chaotic final days of the Dyatlov expedition, rendered in a black-and-white that often evokes the style and vibe of vintage Soviet cinema. Kostin is aided by Ekaterina Shumanova, the medical examiner, who maybe not-so-coincidentally happens to be the widow of Kostin’s old Red Army buddy. In fact, the guilt he carries from the great war might have a direct bearing on his investigation.

As they tease out the truth, we watch the Dyatlov Party encounter angry bears, the hostile indigenous Mansi people, terrible weather, mysterious lights in the sky, and a fugitive from the nearby labor camp. They are also distracted by love triangles and revelations Zolotaryov might not entirely be what he presents himself to be. Some of the Dyatlov mythology will be half-explained away, but a dark supernatural mysticism hangs over the entire incident.

Admittedly, the gulag’s fugitive-hunting KGB squad are nasty pieces of work, but the series itself largely presents the official story uncritically, sort of like if Oliver Stone’s
JFK had endorsed the Warren Commission Report. In terms of drama, the long, drawn-out demise of the Dyatlov Party reaches the point of being downright punishing. You have to start face-palming each time one of the students is talked about of turning back. Seriously, you’re hiking on Dead Mountain, it’s snowing, and there are armed goons from the gulag running around the slope. What could go wrong?

Not surprisingly, the investigation sequences often work better than the expedition flashbacks, especially since a lot of the students are hard to tell apart. Yet, arguably the most intriguing performance comes from Egor Beroev, as the dangerous but weirdly paternal Zolotaryov. Pyotr Fyodorov broods and stews competently as Kostin. He also has some decent odd couple dynamic going on with Andrei Dobrovolski as the somewhat slack, but down-to-earth regional Captain Aleksandr Okounev.

It is interesting to see how you can and cannot portray the Soviet era on Russian TV. It is a bit of whitewash, but to be fair, the early Khrushchev years were definitely a respite from the Stalinist terror. There are a lot of interesting
X-File elements, but it is certainly not the final word on the Dyatlov Pass Incident (and the cliched portrayal of the Mansi would probably be problematic on American TV). A decidedly mixed but interesting viewing bag, Dead Mountain starts streaming today (9/2) on Topic.