I’m proudly Finnish, so I wanted to write about a masterpiece of Finnish horror, Sauna. Now, Finnish horror is not a term you hear in everyday conversation. That’s because Finnish horror is not really a thing. Which in turn means that being a masterpiece of Finnish horror doesn’t really mean anything. But let me tell you, Sauna is a masterpiece. I’m very, very picky when it comes to Finnish movies; I hardly like any of them. Sauna I do like. In this post I’ll tell you why.
Knut and Eerik are on a mission to outline a new border after a war that was waged between Sweden and Russia. Since Finland was part of Sweden back then, Finland was involved in the war. But I won’t bore you with the historical details any further (although I myself am quite partial to historical details) since this is not a boring history movie. Knut and Eerik’s journey is shadowed by the memory of doing a dreadful deed along the way: killing a father and leaving his daughter to rot in a basement in the middle of nowhere. Eventually they happen across a mysterious village that boasts a special kind sauna. This sauna radiates an enigmatic atmosphere that shrouds all the residents under its pious aura. This is a sauna where you go to atone for you sins.
Hang on, a sauna? How can a sauna have anything to do with atonement? I should mention that while you’re all very familiar with saunas and it’s not a special Nordic mystery anymore, there’s more to saunas than just naked sweating and beer drinking (or relaxation and pore cleansing, if you’re into a healthier lifestyle). In the olden days in Finland, a sauna was a spiritual place, almost like a peculiar chapel. When you gave birth, your newborn was washed in the sauna. When you died, you body was washed in the sauna. It was a sacred place, a place for rites of passage, where the soul entered and exited the realm of the living.
Sauna the movie is proper scary, which really surprised me when I first saw it. The only feeling a Finnish movie had ever awoken in me was depression and gloom (except for a few glorious comedy movies made in the nineties). While Sauna has the same Finnish signature atmosphere of depression and gloom, it works well with the transcendental and psychological terror that slowly creeps up on Knut and Eerik. And let’s face it, Finland in the 1500s was a gloomy and depressing place. So, gloom and depression are very much legitimate in this movie. Now I shall move on and try to write a sentence without the words “gloom” and “depression” in it.
What really impressed me on the first viewing of Sauna were the ghosty characters. I say ghosty characters, because they’re not exactly ghosts, and there’s absolutely no explanation given in the movie as to what they exactly are. And that’s just brilliant. I love not getting explanations. Sometimes not getting explanations means humongous plot holes and all around a crappy screenplay, but in this case it magnified the horror tenfold and preserved the mystery of the sauna, just as it should do. Enough is explained, and just the right amount is left unexplained. Because of this, your average Finn with their own sauna will get to enjoy elevated blood pressure, chills and paranoia every time they enter it, which is a sign of a job well done.
Ghosty characters and mystical saunas aside, there’s something truly terrifying about a gaunt, pertinacious Finnish man. I mean, just look at Ville Virtanen (Eerik) in this movie. His unyielding face makes me recoil in whimpering panic. His stare makes me doubt myself and everything I’ve ever achieved in life. His severe disposition makes me melt into an insignificant puddle of petrified goo. It’s not your usual “I’m an angry scary man” –effect; Eerik is a broken, war-weary man who just wants to go home. His terror stems from deep trauma combined with short temper and absolute authority. He’s like a mini villain on his road to penance. I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Finnish character in a Finnish movie, but here goes: what a juicy character.
There you have it, my thoughts on a Finnish horror movie. I have to admit, Sauna owes a lot of its scare tactics to Asian horror. But the rest of the movie is purely Finnish. There’s nothing quite like Finnish melancholy, and this movie depicts it and harnesses it perfectly: once I got over the ghosty scaries it became clear to me that the real horror of the movie is the notion of having to carry your sins with you. That’s a thought that sticks, since the audience can relate (even if the sins of the audience aren’t as serious as Knut and Eerik’s). That’s also a melancholic thought if there ever was one.
“Sen päivän jälkeen kun muutettiin tänne, ei yksikään meistä ole uskaltanut oikein kunnolla elää. Eikä kuolla.”
– pohjalainen talonpoika –
(“Ever since the day we got here, not one of us has really dared to live. Or to die.” – Northern Finnish peasant – )