Obscure Films You Need to See #1: Sauna (2008)

Sauna poster

(2008 Bronson Club Productions. Director Antti-Jussi Annila. Screenplay by Iiro Küttner)

The unfortunate fact is that Finland produces very few genuinely interesting films. Most Finnish films are formulaic, and deal with mundane, uninteresting matters: relationship problems among young urban professionals in Helsinki, biographical films about ultimately uninteresting people, et cetera.

Once in a whole, though, you find yourself surprised when you buy a ticket to a domestic film. This nearly paranormal experience happened to me in 2008, when I went to see Sauna.

The setting alone is interesting and totally different from anything I’ve seen before. After a long, bloody war between Sweden and Russia comes to an end in the late 1500s, two brothers and their convoy are sent to draw a map of the new borders between the huge nations. One brother is a battle-hardened soldier, still re-living the nightmares of the kill-or-be-killed world of the battlefield. The other is an educated academic, on board to carry out the scientific part of the mapping.

On their journey the posse come across a bizarre village that, for some reason, has not been marked in any previous maps. Why? And why is the population of the village the exact same number as… actually, let’s not say anything more – that would be spoiling the plot.

The film is directed with expertise you wouldn’t normally expect from a guy who has only made a few films before this one. However, Annila hits all the right marks both in terms of horror and drama. The film has a tense, spooky atmosphere that lingers in the air like an ominous premonition, and at the start of the film we only get a few glimpses of what might be behind the curtain (such as a scene where the mapping group come across an animal that has seemingly gouged its own eyes out for some reason).

I’m not entirely certain if the film will completely “open up” to people who don’t speak Finnish, or who have never lived in Finland. To us Finns, however (at least those of us with the capacity to contextualize art in philosophical and historical terms) Sauna is a beautiful, haunting musing on guilt, war, mythology, and our forever-strained relationship with our neighbor to the East, Russia.

The cinematography is gorgeous, almost enough of a reason in itself to watch the film. I’ve never seen the endless Northern European forests filmed this way. Having grown up in the countryside, I immediately connected with Annila’s and cinematographer Henri Blomberg’s vision of Finland’s nature: beautiful, vast, but also somehow ominous in the all-encompassing might its trees cast over life in this Northern periphery.

The film should be fairly easy to find at this point; there are DVDs available with English subtitles.

Let me know in the comments what you thought if you decide to watch the movie!

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