A.J. Anila’s Sauna is an odd and challenging film. The Finnish horror feature is the second for its director and like his first, Jade Warrior, it’s a melding of genres; supernatural horror, historical drama and existential mystery. A grim, cold and foreboding movie, Sauna is really about the price of sin and the nature of guilt. Drawing on the contemplative and visually complex style of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and introducing the slimy, grotesque phantoms associated with Asian cinema, Anilla makes a movie that is inclined to lofty thoughts but ends up being a series of pretty moving paintings that only teases depth.
Set in the 1500s, at the end of a long-running war between Finland and Russia, Sauna follows the Spore brothers, Erik (Ville Virtanen) and Knut (Tommi Eronen), who are serving as Finnish representatives on a survey mission that will define the boundaries of the two countries. Erik, a battle-hardened veteran of the war, and Knut, a young scholar with a university post awaiting him, are traveling along with a Russian diplomat and his military personnel when they find a strange town where the children have all died and the old refuse to. Beyond the borders of the town, in the swamp, stands a sauna. The folklore of the village suggests that it might possess the power to absolve one of their sins. Knut is cautious, but Erik is determined, and slowly he becomes fixated on the compelling promise of the sauna’s properties.
The event that stands at the center of Anila’s film is a night-time skirmish that occurs between a Russian farmer and Erik and results in the former’s death at the hands of the latter. Knut, fearing that Erik may get violent–his brother has a hatred of the Russians and his conscience has become seared and scarred by the war–hides the farmer’s young daughter in a cellar and leaves her there. When he discovers Erik repeatedly stabbing the Russian’s prone body, he backs down, and tells his older brother where she is. They leave the town, Knut assuming she has been freed. These events occur chronologically at the start of the story, before the Spores come across the unusual town, but they are replayed again and again, with more information each time, exonerating or condemning the brothers with their revelations.
The landscape is gray and dreary; thickets and brambles and swamps full of foul black ink crowd the de-saturated forest. The village is little more than a smoked-out husk where pristine inhabitants lost in time march back and forth, vexing the brothers with their unnatural behavior. Knut comments early on “Have you ever seen peasants so clean?” The dark interiors of the cellars, saunas, and huts are lit with warm candle light and represent the only solace in a land dying piece by piece.
And then there is the sauna. Geometrically hair-raising, it stands in the middle of the swamp as an rectangular obelisk of austere white. Nothing lives in it’ immediate proximity. The vegetation is covered in a fearsome swamp slime. Erik is provoked by it, but also longs for it. Knut is being haunted by images of the young girl, her hands covering a face dripping in vile black ooze. The promise remains; cleansing of sins. Erik does not show it in his outward appearance, but he fears death and a final judgment. Inside the sauna might lie his one chance of standing before God with a clean slate. Knut wonders what is inside, and one of the townspeople suggests that “It may only look like a sauna because that is all God knows we would see.”
What the sauna is, who enters it, and what happens inside I will leave for you to discover. I will say now, don’t go in expecting significant answers. The last third suggests that Sauna has always been about the brothers and the mystery involving the town is merely a contraption to explore the movie’s supernatural side. The powerful imagery goes from oppressive to horrifying and finally downright nightmarish. There visions in those final minutes –accompanied by a moving, penetrating score– that I won’t easily shake. Their meaning, however, is mostly obscure to me. They exist to emotionally charge the film’s theme but they do not help explain it or offer up assistance with the sin problem. We are left wondering what the price of atonement really is, but I like that Anila suggests that such a price is higher than we can well imagine.
This is a movie that doesn’t have a single frame of contemporary sentiment floating about it. It is decidedly medieval in its thoughts, viewpoint and imagery. In some ways, I wish Sauna had pursued its intellectual and cerebral questions a bit further and employed the visuals to explore the intricacies of its moral headspace. Whereas Tarkovsky crafted long, often frustratingly sedate pieces of visual poetry that revealed complexity in simplicity, Sauna is only 84 minutes long and does not explore its ideas beyond a surface level that consists mostly of sights, sounds and atmosphere. Completely sensory, it doesn’t deliver the soul-searching it promises.
As an entertainment some will find it infuriatingly slow and plodding. As a historical drama and a horror film it doesn’t quite succeed either. But, can a film be worth seeing, recommendable, and even powerful as solely a visual experience? I think so, and Sauna is exactly that kind of movie. In a time when movies are full of wasted words, throwaway shots, and inconsequential effects comes this one, that lets nary a scene go by without planting some furtive, imaginative thought in the viewer’s head.