Before mass communication, globalization, and the easy availability of information, superstition was the stuff of horror. Myths and legends, folklore and faith mutated into a kind of communal angst, a way of dealing with the unexplainable, the unfathomable, and in many cases, the unconscionable. Early civilization was riddled with conflicts, wars and crusades meant to purge the world of certain evil ideas, and yet with each new battle, an entire series of fallacies were forged.
During the early part of the 16th Century, Russia and Finland clashed for pride and property. After nearly 25 years, a truce was agreed upon and signed. Now, with aggressions ceasing, a band of surveyors are out drawing borders between the powers. Led by ex-soldiers and military officials, the process involves cunning, negotiation, and more than a little glorified game playing. But when two brothers, Knut and Erik, commit a horrible crime in one of the remote villages, they feel haunted by more than their duty to the crown.
Things come to a head in a small uncharted town smack dab in the middle of the proposed border. Most unusual, there’s a building in the center of a swamp, a place the fearful residents claim is either evil or ethereal, an oasis of horrid darkness or sin-free soul salvation. Thus begins the provocative, potent period piece fright flick Sauna, an amazing work of subtle menace by Finnish director Antti-Jussi Annila. Similar in style to the brilliant Let the Right One In, this story of blame and belief, terror and trepidation uses an unfamiliar era and event to lay the foundation for one undeniable work of fear.
Thanks to its antagonistic premise, the Russians and Finns constantly clashing back and forth over every little element of the treaty, we easily buy the actions of Knut and Erik. Anywhere else, they would seem like cruel opportunists, men using the foundation of enemy to relegate human life to an afterthought. As the story progresses, as the superstitions of the mystery burg begin to affect our heroes, we see that Annila has something even more serious to say. Sauna is, at its heart, a morality tale where no act goes unpunished, where irrational fears and baseless dread turn individuals against each other. It’s also a thought-provoking indictment of atrocities, since our main characters are literally “haunted” by an act that, just a few weeks before, was celebrated as patriotic (or at the very least, part of the process of war).
Thanks to the dour and grimy atmosphere, a time when swordsmanship was more important than the ability to read and write, we understand and accept the baseless brutality. We sense why Knut is so afraid, and why Erik is so melancholy. These men are tired - tired of the hypocrisy of mediating claims they battled over for years, tired of the long trips away from their homeland, tired of the dirty looks and intentional deception of the Russian, and tired of having to support each other out of familial obligation. There are many times in Sauna when we believe one brother will turn on the other. It’s not a matter of sibling rivalry, but the internal ravages of bringing death.
For his part, Annila creates a very terrifying if tactile environment. Light barely illuminates the sets and some of the sequences are purposefully lost in a never-ending darkness. Even better, the dirt and fifth of the 16th Century bathes everything in a kind of medieval sadness. We feel the pain these men have gone through, indirectly experiencing the senseless nature of their enterprise with every frozen step. The landscape is as bleak and lifeless as the soldier’s purpose and Annila takes every opportunity to use nature as a means of undermining their resolve. The endless snow, the dead forests all seem to suggest that nothing good will come from Knut and Erik’s mission.
And then there is the title element, the surreal concrete building which the villagers swear brings about penance for and freedom from one’s sins. Of course, such a sentiment flows reciprocally, but no one in Sauna sees it that way. After a quarter century sparring over small parcels of land, all they want is to be forgiven. But payment for one’s crimes can be equally cruel. This is especially true of our two leads. They carry a greater burden than one found in armed conflict. The sequences inside the structure have a sinister edge, even as they promise something far more righteous. Religion is not a major part of Sauna, except for the notion of how faith (and blood rituals) can battle even the most entrenched failed folklore.
Thanks to its wonderful cast (Ville Virtanen is especially effective as a gaunt and ghoulish Erik) and a primitive location, Sauna finds a way to get deep under your skin. This is the kind of horror movie that has you thinking more than shrieking, that offers dread in how it presents its ideas vs. how creepy things will get. We don’t necessarily indentify with these men or their mission, and recognize that they require punishment more than deliverance, but in the end, that’s not really why we watch.
Instead, director Annila works a kind of wicked magic over the audience, involving them in a time and predicament far removed from their current frame of reference. Even in this, the 21st Century, there are still parts of the world that drape their cultural ways in ancient, almost archaic beliefs. As Sauna shows us, the reaction to said convictions are often as unholy as the initial fears themselves.