Imagine a horror film made by and for adults. That is Sauna. But gore fans and slasher cretins beware... it’s got more scary things than just subti
Finnish director Antti-Jussi Annila seems to have moved past his first film, the mysterious 2006 Jade Warrior (and by mysterious, I mean a baffling experiment in Finnish/Chinese martial arts) and produced a solid little ghost story with a depth unusual in the genre. It is much more than what I expected it to be. What I don’t get is why everyone isn’t talking about this film.
Ingmar Bergman meets J-Horror
Annila may be a Finn but he sure can make a Swedish film. Max von Sydow look-alike Ville Virtanen plays Eerik Spoor, the Swedish captain who could have stepped right out of Bergman’s Seventh Seal (with maybe some bits of Herzog’s Don Lope de Aguirre and a whiff of Tarkovsky thrown in).
The Japanese part is the psychological and subdued terror of seeing unknown things standing in shadow and a blackness from which no light can escape. I’ve not seen Jade Warrior, but if it’s as good as Annila’s mixture of East and West in Sauna,then where do I sign up to see it?
Annila weaves threads of ideas into the fabric of Sauna, any one of which would be the main idea in a lesser horror film. This is what separates it from oh, say, Saw I, II, or III, and why Sauna is much more than just a horror film. There is history, philosophy, psychology, theology and fantasy all happening here and rather than pulling in different directions all these elements are working together to make a tight package. Everything in this film pertains to the story. I don’t believe there is a false lead, red herring or MacGuffin to be found.
A really cool thing about Sauna is that it’s one of those films that’s better than its promotional copy would have you believe. We are told that the sauna in question will ‘wash away your sins’. And that might be an interpretation, but you don’t have to be a fan of Buffy to recognize a hell-mouth when you see one. As with most of what goes on in the film, this particular sauna is deeper than you might think. This is the kind of film that will have you piecing together the symbolic bits and clues long after the credits have rolled.
Off the Map
The year is 1595. The 16-year war between Sweden and Russia is finally over. The two countries agree to define the new border between them. Of course the territory they are dividing is neither Sweden nor Russia but Finland (or will be some day). Eerik Spoor leads the Swedish half of the surveying party; his Russian counterpart is Semenski (Viktor Klimenko) who is glad the war is finally over and wants to return home. But he, like Spoor, has this one last assignment to do.
Eerik’s brother Knut (Tommi Eronen) is with them acting as the cartographer. Knut stayed home was sheltered from the war. Eerik on the other hand is a man ruined by his years of killing. It is the only life he knows. He has killed 72 people and not just other soldiers but civilians, women and perhaps children. In the first five minutes of the film, he kills number 73 and then number 74. Eerik it seems just can’t help himself and his past torments him.
Soon the party comes to a vast and barren bog shown only as a blank area on the map. They could go around it and simply agree that the border goes down the middle, but Erik, ever the good soldier, has been ordered to march off the border step by step. Into the swamp they go but now on foot and that’s when things start getting weird. The compass won’t work, ghostly figures appear and then they stumble onto a bunker-like sauna in a place where nothing of the sort should be.
Next to the mysterious sauna is a village where none is shown on the map. In the village they find abnormally clean peasants who obviously are hiding something. The villagers are also recent arrivals, refugees from the war. And in that village there is but one child because no one has been born or died since they have arrived. But they’ve been in the area long enough to know that there is something very wrong with the place and at the center of it all is the blockhouse sauna.
We learn that the village had been built by Russian monks who have since mysteriously disappeared, but not before leaving behind some disturbing icons of figures without faces. The one lone child, who desperately wants to escape, takes Eerik and Knut to the cache of icons. They promise to take her away from the village. But the secret has been revealed. Soon villagers are found with their own eyes clawed out. They have also chewed away their own tongues. Eerik and Knut both know that the answer to the mysterious village and the black icons has to lie within the sauna. I won’t try to explain what happens next and spoiler alerts are unnecessary here because the ending is poetically mysterious and beyond our comprehension.
Sauna is a complex film. Everywhere you look, there is a depth and substance. The history is deep, the religious hatred is deep, and the characters are as brooding as anything in a Bergman film. The attention to detail both historical and hygienic is wonderful.
The troubled souls, the dismal swamp, the restless dead all have a little extra something that’s too far back in time, too dark to understand. As one of the characters comments, the swamp is one of those places where things go on behind God’s back. It’s more sinister than just Satan doing his mischief. Imagine Lovecraft’s dark visions done with taste and restraint.
Sauna keeps coming back to the theme of friction at the point of contact between opposing forces: the Swedes versus the Russians, Lutherans versus Russian Orthodox, and as we begin to suspect at the end, the new Christian God of light versus something older and darker that still lingers on in the swamp. The world is a dark and scary place and mankind’s petty squabbles are nothing compared to the real war going on.
Yes, this is a very good film indeed.
A trailer is the only extra feature.
Picture and Sound
Wow. Now that’s the way to make a film.
How to Use This DVD
Note the attention to detail both historical and in the storytelling.