In Jessica Hausner's Hotel we're introduced to a pretty young woman named Irene (Franziska Weisz) who is starting a new job as a front desk clerk at a hotel located out in the woods. After she's shown around and given the run down on what her duties entail, she soon learns that the girl she has replaced in the position, one Eva S., has mysteriously disappeared and no one seems to know what happened to her, where she went, or why. As she explores the hotel and the surrounding area she learns of a local legend that explains how a witch used to live in a cave not too far from the hotel and that although she was burned at the stake for heresy, strange things still occur in the area.
Seeing as the hotel is rather remote a lot of the staff members live there, Irene included. Most of her co-workers, however, are very cold and distant when she approaches them and as such, she's unable to really make friends with any of them save for Erik, a young man who she has a brief romantic encounter with. When Irene finds, and puts on, Eva's glasses which she discovers in her room, and agrees to loan her 'lucky charm' cross necklace to a co-worker in turn for a shift swap, things take a very dark turn and the dark corridors and of the hotel and even darker passages of the surrounding forest become a very grim place indeed.
Hotel is an exceptionally well made and wonderfully photographed film that leaves so much up to the viewer to determine on his or her own that it's bound to alienate a whole lot of people. This movie does not give you all the answers, it leaves almost everything up in the air, and it relies almost completely on atmosphere rather than narrative. That being said, if you're willing to invest some of yourself into the experience that is Hotel and use your own imagination to draw your own conclusion, it can be a very rewarding watch regardless of the fact that not a whole lot happens in terms of action or plot development.
Despite the ambiguity of the whole affair, Hotel looks fantastic. Obviously a lot of care and planning went into the lighting and the shot compositions for this film as the cinematography is simply excellent. The camera does a great job of capturing the sterility of the environment and the coldness of the people that Irene finds herself having to work with is reflected in the way that the hotel itself is shot and lit. When Irene walks down the basement hallway into the darkness, it's actually scary even though there are no monsters or serial killers or zombies because we don't know what's going to happen to her and we don't know what is down there. Hausner's film excels at bringing to the forefront the innate fear of the unknown that exists in all of us and by not telling us everything that we might expect to get from a more standard narrative she is in effect tapping into the subconscious but very primal instinct that tells us not to go into dark creepy places. A better example of how she makes this work is when Jessica walks into the woods at night. Though we see very clearly the trunks of the trees on the outskirts of the forest, lit from the lights in and on the hotel, everything past that is completely black and as she walks slowly into it, clad in her red hotel uniform which lets us see her figure a little bit longer than we would if she were wearing darker colors, it is almost like she is literally being swallowed up and again, despite the fact that we don't really see anything happen, it's completely disturbing. Cinematographers Martin Gschlacht and designer Katharina Woppermann really knocked this one out of the park in the visuals department.
The performances in the movie are also quite solid, with the stand out cast member being Franziska Weisz who does an admirable job of showing the nervousness and hesitation that comes with taking a new job in a completely foreign environment. The reset of the characters are really only bit players though Christopher Scharf as Eric, the love interest, is quite good in an understated performance as is Rosa Waissnex as Mrs. Liebig, an older woman who has been at the hotel a long time and, in a stand out moment, who has the gumption to tell Irene to leave before reciting the Rosary and going back to work.
Though at times you might think that the film is heading into Twin Peaks of The Shining territory (and there are bits that do seem to borrow a little bit from both), Hausner's film is much more other-worldly and a lot less explained than even Lynch's work, which sets it apart quite a bit from other similar genre entries. Hotel isn't a film for everyone, but for those looking to try something a little different, something that will linger with you and affect you more a day or two after you've seen it than during the movie itself, it comes recommended.
The 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks decent and thankfully the black levels stay pretty strong, which is important considering what an important role they play in the film. Likewise, color reproduction is pretty nice throughout. There is some heavy edge enhancement and some aliasing present throughout, though some scenes get hit harder by this than others, though thankfully there aren't any problems with compression artifacts. A couple of scenes are a little on the murky side but overall, everything is perfectly watchable even if it could have been better.
The German language Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix sounds quite good on this DVD and comes complete with optional subtitles available in traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, and English. The film, for the most part, is pretty quiet but there are a few key scenes that make good use of the channel separation and add some directional effects that enhance the creepy atmosphere that is created in the movie. There are one or two minor bits and pieces that are not subtitled in the movie, like where the boys choir sings, but aside from that the dialogue is well translated and easy enough to follow throughout.
Unfortunately, aside from an interactive menu and chapter selection options the only extra feature on this release is the film's theatrical trailer (which at least comes with English subtitles, which is nice).
Relying almost completely on atmosphere and mood, Hotel is a really interesting and genuinely suspenseful film, even if it is all rather ambiguous. Delta Mac's DVD is nothing to write home about but the movie looks and sounds decent enough and will do as an affordable stop gap measure until the movie gets a proper domestic release. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.