Movie Review – Sauna (2008)

The year is 1595. After a decades-long war between Sweden and Russia a joint team of representatives from both monarchies are trekking through Finland to mark the border between the two powers. The Swedes are led by two brothers, the younger Knut (Tommi Eronen) – a gentle, hopeful scholar – and Eerik (Ville Virtanen), a veteran of the conflict whose body is betraying him with age and who is finding it difficult to transition from bloodthirsty soldier to peacetime diplomat. As the Russian Semenski says to Eerik, “You are scared of peace, because the end of war will take away the justification for the murders that you have on your conscience.” He is haunted by his past misdeeds in ways which seem to manifest on their journey, especially as the team comes across a remote, uncharted village with a mysterious sauna on its periphery.

“What if Hell is not a fiery furnace beneath the continents?” one of the Russians asks, “What if it’s just an unclean place without the presence of God? A time and place behind God’s back?”

Sauna 2008 still

Finland’s Sauna (2008), directed by Antti-Jussi Annila, unfolds within this fantastic historical backdrop. Themes of conflict permeate the film, with Eerik often serving as the volatile nexus, be they between nations, religions, the past and the future, or, as suggested by the sauna, salvation and damnation. The cinematography is gorgeous. The muted colors and intimate camerawork serve to bring the characters and era to life. All of the actors, but particularly Virtanen and Eronen, are well-cast. Virtanen especially evokes Max von Sydow’s crusading knight in Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant The Seventh Seal (1957).

The film tackles many themes and has some truly striking images, but its messages and meanings are largely not forthcoming. Sauna is more like a puzzle box which we know does not have all the pieces in it, but has just enough to give us some kind of picture. The filmmaker leaves many elements open to interpretation – particularly the ending – making the experience a surreal, almost Expressionist one, and one that the viewer is likely to mull over days after watching. Its approach is heavily atmospheric and psychological, relying upon various forms of symbolism to convey many of its plot points. Viewers would be wise to pay close attention to the dialogue and images so as not to miss potentially vital information.

Sauna is not a film for all horror fans. It’s a contemplative, patient film with very few jump scares, and it is purposefully enigmatic, perhaps frustratingly so to viewers who want clear answers from the movies they watch. However, it’s the sort of film that gives hope to discerning viewers that the genre still has new places to go and filmmakers willing to take the journey to go there.

Grade: B