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. Sauna 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. Sauna 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
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Richard Watts

Wednesday 4 November, 2009

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts