In Judge Daryl Loomis's experience, saunas are for committing sins, not forgiving them.
Cleanse your sins.
Sauna is thick with symbolism, philosophy, and ruminations on the nature of sin and guilt. On this alone, given the nature of what we're used to seeing in the genre, the film hardly seems like horror. Likewise, by all modern standards of the genre, it barely qualifies. That the film is so effective makes it all the more surprising and unique. Sauna doesn't play with any of the modern genre clichés. It moves at its own deliberate pace and skewed logic; I can't think of any film quite like it in the realm of horror. Director Antti-Jussi Annila (Jade Warrior) borrows from old literary horror for his story and puts them into a film that more closely resembles Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker than John Carpenter's Halloween. His creation may lack any typical scare tactics, but this is an astonishingly beautiful film, soaked in dread and sadness, that sticks in the brain, the questions it poses rolling over and over without a solid resolution.
Facts of the Case
The brutal Russo-Swedish War of 1590-1595 has finally come to close and a commission is set up between the two countries to map the new border. Brothers Knut (Tommi Eronen), a cartographer and intellectual, and Eerik (Ville Virtanen), a grizzled veteran of the war, represent the Swedish side of the commission. Just before they're to meet with the Russian faction, they come upon a Russian man and his daughter who are gracious enough to offer them shelter. Their kindness is not returned, however, as Eerik has huge issues with Russian Christianity and, after finding a hidden religious icon, flips. The man is murdered on the spot and the daughter is locked in a cellar to rot. Eerik doesn't care; he's killed far too many to count, but guilt begins to mount in Knut. His sanity failing him during their mission, the group comes upon a tiny village in the middle of a swamp that is on no map. The villagers possess a sauna that they promise can cleanse anybody's sins without the hand of God, but that forgiveness comes with a heavy price.
From a horror perspective, Anilla has put together an excellent display of tension and atmosphere. From the cryptic title narration to the gorgeous opening shot of crystal clear spring water turning red with blood, the film immediately sucks you in with its mystery and beauty. The, the first action, an animal skin floats down the glacial river and somebody pulls it out. Upon opening the skin, he finds the contract for the mapping commission, each member's signature, and a note at the bottom that reads: "Can we ever be forgiven?"
In true H.P. Lovecraft fashion, our search for answers begin eleven days earlier with Knut and Eerick who, when we meet him, is stabbing somebody…a lot. The initial promise of blood that this scene makes goes unfulfilled for a long time, but we're left with a lingering feeling that all of this is very bad. When they meet the man and daughter, everything seems fine, but one of our heroes is psycho and his hatred of Russian faith, a hatred that helped spur the wartime violence, causes him to lash out in the old way, no matter that the war has ended. After the man's death, in the name of protecting the girl from Eerick's wrath, Knut locks her in a cellar, burying her alive. This begins the second part, deeply reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe. As in his story, "The Telltale Heart," guilt in Sauna is a far more fearsome monster than any ghost, as Knut begins to see the girl he buried out in the distance, then closer, then right next to him. Whether anybody else can see her is unclear; Knut acts as normal as possible as his sanity begins to crack. As they reach the sauna, and the third part of the film, Anilla returns deftly to Lovecraft. The structure of the sauna and its odd position in the middle of the swamp has the look and feel of something built by the Elder gods and the creepazoid townspeople seems to be born of Azethoth itself. They don't know why the sauna works as it does, but they know that the gift it gives is a double-edged reward. When the strange tension becomes oppressive and we finally find out what goes on with that building, the film shifts one final time into all-out horror, more along the lines of what we expect, but not for the reasons we expect it. Because the film to this point is so deliberate and understated, the climax is much more unsettling and shocking than any gore flick ever could.
Sauna would get high marks based solely on its story and intellectual leanings, but it's also a fabulously beautiful film, as well-realized technically as conceptually. The cinematography by Henri Blomberg features a deep grey and brown palette that is muted, but strikingly shot. The cold of the Finnish countryside comes through in the photography and Anilla fully utilizes the widescreen format to present beautiful, bleak landscapes. The performances are just as quiet and sad. Eronen and Virtanen compliment each other very well as the brothers. The introverted, bookish Knut sits in good balance with the vicious aggressiveness of Eerik. While they are very different kinds of people, they keep an emotional distance from society and, though it manifests in different ways, the darkness inside both of them suggests a shared upbringing. They have the same bleakness of personality as the landscape they wander through. This sort of consistency of vision, in the look, in the tone, and in the performances make Sauna more than a philosophical treatise couched in a morbid premise; it rises above into real art, a combination of horror and period drama that I can't say I've ever seen before.
The DVD release from MTI is bare-bones, but is technically quite sound. The film has the soft feel of an older film, but the anamorphic transfer is a crisp as can be. The muted tones are perfectly rendered and the black levels, especially important in the abyss of the sauna, are nice and strong. The sound mix is good, but not quite the equal of the image. The dialog is all very clear and there is good separation amongst the channels, but the rear speakers and sub-woofer are pretty soft, taking something away from the immersion. A slate of extras would have been greatly appreciated, but only a trailer was included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This film will have trouble finding an audience in the United States, though it may do better elsewhere. In a genre that often offers some of the most mindless entertainment possible, this is a difficult film that demands a lot from its audience. As a foreign genre film, there is an immediate strike in some minds, and those looking for thrills, chills, and buckets of grue will come away disappointed and perplexed. This is one of its greatest virtues, however. Because it lies in between genres and its horror is much more of the meditative, gothic sort, I have an easier time recommending the film to people otherwise derisive of the horror genre.
Sauna isn't surprising because it's smart. They aren't common, but intelligent horror films are certainly out there. It's surprising because it's smart, beautifully shot, and has atmosphere to burn. Its philosophy is in perfect balance with its style, neither drawing too much attention to itself, but each accentuating the other, producing an uncanny sense of dread. Sauna is the best new horror film I've seen in almost a year.
All guilt is forgiven and, with this judge, there's no catch, so sin away.
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