Film

Sauna (2008)


Sauna

Director: Antti-Jussi Annila
Cast: Ville Virtanen, Tommi Eronen, Viktor Klimenko, Rain Tolk, Kari Ketonen
Distributor: IFC Films
Studio: Bronson Club
UK Release Date: 2009-10-27
US Release Date: 2009-10-27

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.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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