Adventures in Estonian Space Synth

Nate Dorr

An icily surreal moment from <i>Dead Mountaineer's Hotel</i>, 1979

An icily surreal moment from Dead Mountaineer's Hotel, 1979

I admit: I know next to nothing about Estonia. I know next to nothing about Estonian film-making. But Estonia, as with Poland,
mixes Soviet-era state art funding with a strong animation tradition,
and an apparent predilection for the truly bizarre. Combine this with
the same kinds of icy influences pervading Scandinavian film-making just
across the North Sea, and I'm totally intrigued. Seemingly with good
cause, from early investigations.

Take Klaabu, for example, a character so apparently beloved as to
have become the logo of the Tallinnfilm studio itself. Klaabu is an
adorable anthropomorphic egg-creature, voiced by a baby, who grows
antennae after eating some berries. In the usual manner of egg-creature
antennae, these allow him (her?) to become invisible when retracted. And
to fly. Naturally. This seems to have been aimed at children but
compared to most such fare, is either too psychedelic for children or
too psychedelic for anyone but the babies that voiced it.

Klaabu [Avo Paistik, 1978, 10m]

The
sheer strangeness of this film owes no small debt to the ethereal
synthesizer soundtrack and esoteric sound design of Sven Grünberg, then
only 22 years old, though he was already notable as a founding member of
Mess, an Estonian prog rock band evidently too out-of-line with the
Soviet ideology of the time to ever manage to release an album until
decades later. In “Klaabu”, Grünberg's glistening ambient squeals and
swirls are at times the glue that holds the action together.
Fortunately, he was also around to remix his theme and offer new cosmic
noise for a sequel, “Klaabu Kosmoses” (Klaabu in Space), with Klaabu
animator Avo Paistik. The sequel is actually far less trippy than the
first film, which I know is a pretty bold statement to make about a
short in which a space-traveling egg attempts to save a planet of giant
strawberries from baggy ravenous mushroom-trumpets.

Klaabu in Space [Avo Paistik, 1981, 15m]

There was one other Paistik-helmed Klaabu film between those two, but without Grünberg's synths it's just not the same:

Klaabu Nipi Tige Kala [Avo Paistik, 1979, 10m]

I'd
like be able offer a little more information on Paistik, but aside from
his sizeable list of animated productions — including several more
with Grünberg, like Naksitrallid,
which appears to be about a plague of cats, and its sequel — all I've
been able to turn up is that he also illustrated a number of children's books. (Actually, I believe that Klaabu may have originated as one of these).

Grünberg's absense from “Klaabu Nipi Tige Kala” can perhaps be
explained by the fact that at the time he was busy soundtracking an
entire feature,Grigori Kromanov's bizarre sci-fi noir, Dead Mountaineer's Hotel ('Hukkunud Alpinisti' hotell, 1979). Think, perhaps of some kind of wintry X-Files set in a futuristically-designed version of Twin Peaks' Great Northern Hotel, perhaps, and you're part way there. Of course, this preceded both of those by a decade.

The premise seems purely noir — a veteran police inspector is
summoned to a remote hotel in the mountains to investigate a murder,
only to discover that no murder has occurred (or has it? or will it?)
— but any trace of a real noir procedural is quickly submerged in pure
weird. Inspector Glebsky's investigation technique proves haphazard at
best and largely consists of being completely perplexed when the
various caricatured eccentrics populating the hotel relate the latest
inexplicable happenings to him and following the requisite
mountain-hotel Saint Bernard to mysteriously discarded firearms.

What
appears initially to be a complete mess of plot points running against
each other eventually does resolve into a loopy coherency, but it's a
very loopy coherency (however improbably coherent). An attempt at
philosophical depth crops up in the final moments as well, but themes of
moral duty in the face of the unbelievable feel a little clumsy and
dashed off. As adaptations of Strugatsky Brothers novels go, this is
certainly not Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (though Innkeeper Alex Snewahr is

played by Jüri Järvet, the Estonian actor best known as Dr. Snaut in Tarkovsky's Solyaris). All of this leads to the genre-definition senses of mystery and detection just never really properly engaging.

And yet.

Once you get over what Dead Mountaineer's Hotel is not, you may
find that what it is is quite enough. Every aspect of the (absurd,
uneven) story is executed with a completely unexpected panache. And
atmosphere — if anything from noir comes through, it's the sense of
atmosphere, if not quite the usual noir version. Deep with shadow,
illuminated only in stark bands and fluorescent flickers of light, the
bizarrely modernist hotel, all sharp angles, mirrors, half-seen
frescoes, crisp delineations between rooms and halls and galleries,
actually makes for a fantastic setting. Each window seems to frame, with
impossible perfection, its own jutting peak of snow and stone, and day
or night sees the halls falling away into thick gloom. Outside, moody
interlude shots track along the inhuman cliffs and spires, where even
direct sun seems more inclined to blind and obscure than to illuminate.
Perhaps, in such a place, these characters (the doorjamb-climbing
physicist, the traveling salesman with nowhere to go, the eerily
flirtatious young wife) can't help but be a bit strange. Given the sense
of strangeness pervading everything, their slightly awkward, deadpan
performances may even be an asset. And in building this sort of
atmosphere, Grünberg's sweeping synthesizers again fill a key role,
whether glazing a minimal icy shine across unearthly exteriors or
animating an unexpected dance scene with bombastic Estonian glam rock
(presumably Mess in full-band form) to which the guests cavort across
increasingly abrupt (drunken?) camera moves.

Better than try to explain,
I'll illustrate directly:

Sven Grünberg, Alguse Maed

Sven Grünberg, Ball


Sven Grünberg, Laviin</a>

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