Column: From Strange and Distant Shores: Sauna

by Orrin Grey

SaunaSauna. Director: Antti-Jussi Annila Cast: Ville Virtanen, Tommi Eronen. Country: Finland/Czech Republic.

Sauna was recommended to me by a couple of different friends, neither of whom would say anything about it beforehand except that it was good. They weren’t wrong, but I can see why they were hesitant to say more. Sauna‘s something of a weird, creepy masterpiece, but it’s also not easy to talk or write about. It’s the kind of movie where I can tell you with some certainty pretty much everything that happened, but when it comes to explaining why or what it means, my confidence begins to waver.

It’s certainly not your average horror flick. Set in the 14th century, in the aftermath of a 25-year war between Sweden and Russia, it follows a group of soldiers from both sides who have been assigned to scout the new borders between their nations. The main characters are Swedish brothers Erik and Knut, who, along with their Russian counterparts, come upon an unexpected and mysterious village in the middle of a swamp, and the titular sauna that’s just outside the village’s borders.

That may not sound like much of a plot, but Sauna isn’t a movie that stands or falls on the strength of its narrative concept. What makes Sauna tick is a pervasive, creeping dread and despair that infuses every shot and frame and line, permeating the entire film with as genuine a sense of almost-cosmic horror as you are likely to find in modern cinema. If I had to give you an elevator pitch, I’d call it the slow-burn Norwegian Silent Hill, with fewer monsters and better creepiness. Relying on a minimum of gore, special effects, or jump scares, director Antti-Jussi Annila creates a very credible darkness at the heart of the movie. A good example of the ingenious use of suggestion on display here is an early scene when the soldiers find the corpse of a dog that has clawed its own eyes out.

All the atmosphere needs an anchor, though, and that’s provided by Ville Virtanen’s Erik. A professional soldier who has been fighting in the war since he was 16, Erik is addicted to violence but still hopes to shield his comparatively-sheltered younger brother Knut. He’s visually striking and also a fascinating character, as compelling and as mystifying as the movie itself.

Sauna is the kind of movie that people tend to say “makes you think” (and that other people tend to say is “boring” or “stupid”). Its themes of guilt, the possibility of atonement, and the actual and metaphysical prices of sin seem obvious, but what it actually has to say about those themes is a subject that I think you could easily debate for quite some time after watching it, and even then, you might never really be sure.

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