Film 2009 #188 – Sauna

Sauna (2008, dir. Antti-Jussi Annila)

During the late 16th century, the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire went to war. During this period, Sweden wished to expand its borders and found an enemy with the Russians, whose religious hierarchy clashed with Sweden’s. Eventually King Gustav of Sweden and Russian Emporer Ivan the IVth came to a tenuous peace that hinged on a rewriting of the borders of the two lands. A joint cartography mission was established with one group heading south, the other north, with plans to meet in the middle. The group heading north never made it to the rendezvous and this film speculates as to why.

Knut and Erik Spore are the Swedish half to the Northern bound cartography team, mapping the new boundaries of the two lands through desolate plains and rotting forests. Erik is haunted by his years fighting in the war against Russia and would like to have nothing to do with their partners on this mission. On their journey, a disturbing incident occurs where Erik discovers a family housing them are Russian sympathizers. With the Russian half of the mission camped out of sight, Erik brutally stabs the peasant father to death and Knut, after lusting over the daughter, locks her in a cellar to be abandoned. A few miles down river they come to the swamp, an area no one is anxious to explore. In they go, only to find a village not recorded on any of the previous maps, full of elderly peasants who seem unable to die. Sitting in the midst of the bog, is a plan white sauna house, which seems to beckon young Knut and troubles Erik. It is inevitable that sins will paid out in this barren place.

Sauna is a masterpiece. I am repeatedly amazed at the skill with which small budget, foreign language pictures shame the tripe being cranked out of the Hollywood machine. It is apparent that there is a strong historical spine to this film that I am frustrated to not be fully aware of. It makes sense that our social studies textbooks focus on the key regions and more profound empires, but when seeing films like this it makes me wish I knew more specifics about many of the overlooked societies.

There is a strong division between the religious beliefs of the Russian and Swedes, with Erik discovering Russian Orthodox imagery of the Virgin Mary in a peasant’s house being enough for him to stab the man over seventy time in the face. The Russian military dress is much more regal, in contrast to the plain leather and straps of the Swedish soldiers. It is apparent that these cultural groups find little to agree on. That is until the discovery of this mysterious village in the swamp. What is brought out of all the men is the deeper, ingrained pagan superstitions of the region. Christianity becomes a veneer lain over their peoples, but what they truly fear are the primal evils that have been in the earth for millenia.

Sauna is the story of soldiers burdened by sins, committed without thought. Once removed from their sins, they begin to contemplate them and the guilt devours them in the end. All of this is dressed a pared down supernatural motif that refrains from playing its cards until the final thirty minutes of the film. The horror revealed in the end is magnificent in its bleakness and underscored by a comment made by a young Russian soldier earlier in the film. He posits that fire is a cleansing force, so would it not be more appropriate for Hell to be a place covered in filth.

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