THE NORDIC FILM FESTIVAL: Themes of guilt and redemption, and paganism versus Christianity, are explored in this startling Finnish horror film.
Opening with a striking image – fresh blood trickling across a map and delineating the border between two warring nations – Finnish director Antti-Jussi Annila’s stylish Sauna
screened recently in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney as part of the inaugural Nordic Film Festival.
The Finnish cinema industry, which was founded in 1906, has only rarely tackled the horror genre, with director Teuvo Puro’s 1927 film Evil Spells
an early and unusual exception to the rule; while contemporary Finnish cinema is best known for documentaries such as Pirjo Honkasalo’s award-winning The 3 Rooms of Melancholia
(2004); children’s films such as Pelicanman
(2004) by Liisa Helminen; and stark dramas such as Olli Saarela’s The Year of the Wolf
(2007) and Klaus Härö’s Letters to Father Jacob
(2009); so for director Antti-Jussi Annila to make a horror movie evoking Finland’s pagan past as only his second ever feature makes Sauna all the more special.
Set in 1595, the film focuses on two brothers, professional soldier Eerik Spore (Ville Virtanen) and his younger, academically-inclined sibling Knut (Tommi Eronen), members of a surveying team mapping out the border between Russia and Sweden shortly after the end of a long and bloody war between the rival kingdoms.
One night, while waiting to meet their Russian counterparts, the brothers take shelter in the cabin of a local farmer, who Eerik soon murders after discovering Russian religious icons in the house. To protect the farmer’s young daughter from Eerik’s rage – and from his own lust – Knut locks the girl in the cellar, from which Eerik later claims to have freed her shortly before the two depart. Days later Knut begins to catch glimpses of a ghostly figure pursuing him, and realises to his horror that Eerik did not free the girl after all but instead left her locked in the cellar to die.
Travelling on, the Spore brothers – together with three Russian soldiers who make up the other half of the surveying team – stumble upon a village in the dead centre of a vast swamp. On the outskirts of the settlement, and pre-dating the arrival of the villagers, stands an ancient sauna. In Finnish folklore, saunas can literally wash away one’s sins; but with Knut haunted by the girl from the cellar, and Eerik by memories of all those he’s killed in battle, it seems that this sauna is bringing their sins to life.
Annila has crafted a very European horror story in Sauna
, with the emphasis on suspense and atmosphere rather than shock and gore. He successfully utilizes all the elements of the film’s broad palate, from the central characters’ sibling rivalry and the all-too-fresh tensions of a 25-year long war, through to a palpable sense of unease and decay and the gothic motifs of the ghost story. The film’s production design is visceral and vivid, and performances are excellent – especially Ville Virtanen as the war-haunted Eerik Spore, whose spectacles hide the self-loathing eyes of the habitual killer.
Historical and mythological themes clearly resonate with Annila, whose feature film debut was the high-grossing Jade Warrior, a quietly tragic drama combining elements of ancient Finnish legend with China’s martial-arts inspired wuxia genre.
is a similar mix of genres. The film’s gritty evocation of mankind battling the wilderness evokes the likes of Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe (1981) and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). Other elements of the film – especially the gruesome manifestation of the ghost, her lank hair and raised hands covering eyes weeping black tears – reference Hideo Nakata’s Japanese horror masterpiece Ring (1998); while the film’s central theme of the rational man of science versus the sanity-blasting horrors of the supernatural recalls the gothic fiction of American fantasist H. P. Lovecraft.
A brooding contemplation on guilt and redemption, Sauna is a truly remarkable horror movie.
Directed by Antti-Jussi Annila
Screenplay by Iiro Küttner
Stars Ville Virtanen & Tommi Eronen
Original Music by Panu Aaltio
Cinematography by Henri Blomberg
Edited by Joona Louhivuori
Production Design by Vladimir Bedrich Dvorak, Antti Nikkinen & Ville Vauras
The Nordic Film Festival