Essays · Movies

‘Sauna’ Is an Expert Blend of National and Cinematic Horror

Antti-Jussi Annila’s ‘Sauna’ taps into Finland’s history to blend national and cinematic horror.
IFC Films
By  · Published on October 28th, 2015

In his landmark essay “The Concept of National Cinema,” Andrew Higson wrote about the inherent difficulty in trying to separate national cinemas from the far-reaching influence of Hollywood. American cinema, Higson argued, was more than just cultural imperialism and misleading advertising. When national cinemas were not being directly informed by American films, they were also competing internationally for the same audiences and critical acclaim. This creates a kind of paradox for filmmakers. Higson pointed out that any effective national cinema would need to be “commercially viable but culturally motivated,” meaning that people wishing to make movies in their native countries would be required to tell local stories with global appeal.

It’s not a coincidence, then, that so many national cinemas are built on a foundation of monsters and blood. While many international horror films may focus on cultural anxieties specific to a country’s region or history, the very nature of the horror film itself — the emphasis on aesthetics over narrative depth and the universality of different modes of fear — makes it easier to balance critical and cultural concerns. And this tension between the local and the global is one of the first things addressed by Antti-Jussi Annila, director of the standout 2008 Finnish horror film Sauna.

The first point that Annila makes is that Sauna was always meant to be an effective horror film, regardless of its national identity. “We knew that making a horror film in Finland our biggest audiences would be found outside of Finland,” Annila writes, echoing Higson’s concerns of the commercial and cultural expectations put upon foreign film industries. To this end Annila and his crew have succeeded. Sauna is at its core a truly great horror film, a character study of two brothers unraveled by guilt set against a seemingly haunted village. The film, too, is anchored by the lead performances of Ville Virtanen as the elder warrior Eerik and Tommi Eronen as the younger scholar Knut. If your only interest in the film is to be swept up in a dark fairy tale, then Sauna will prove to be sufficiently unsettling as part of your Halloween lineup.

But unlike other national films — either political or entertaining in nature — Sauna writes the idea of nation-building directly into the film’s narrative. During the opening piece of exposition — where the path of two land surveying expeditions are traced in blood on a map of Sweden — the text explains that war between Finland and Russia has finally come to its end after twenty-five long years. Two parties, one Swedish and one Russian, have been chosen by each empire to mark the boundaries outlined by this new peace treaty. This one single word choice — the identification of Finland as the homeland of Eerik and Knut, the two brothers at the heart of the film — does more to confuse audiences than any degree of its supernatural storytelling or myth. The Europe of 1595 did not include a Finland; the country as we know it was part of the Swedish empire, and while local communities had their own traditions that would eventually be incorporated into the country, the war in question was between Russia and Sweden, not Russian and Finland.

And despite the fact that the film is focused on the 25-year war between Russian and Sweden, Annila himself was not overly familiar with the time period before taking on the project. “My mother is a history teacher,” Annila explains, “so I called her as we started and came familiar with the time period by reading books and talking with her.” While the film exists at an important point in Finnish history, the goal was to create something that would appeal across different time periods and borders. That, in turn, helped set up the narrative. Finland exists as the homeland of two brothers; the oldest has spent the last twenty-five years fighting on his native soil, while the younger brother traveled to Sweden to receive a formal education. According to Annila, this underlines the tension between the two brothers, with “the younger one being noble Swede and the older one a very Finnish Soldier.”

This makes Sauna — horror film or not — one of the most interesting examples of national cinema in recent history. Here is a movie that is rooted in nationality — in the idea of the healing powers of the sauna, something deeply connected to Finnish tradition — but without the actual existence of the country of Finland. Throughout the film, the two brothers — and their Russian counterparts — are engaged in the very act of creating Finland; as they determine the Eastern boundaries of the Swedish empire, they are outlining the boundaries of what will become the new country centuries later. Sauna is a film that uses as its premise the space between nations and reflects the blood and pain that comes with creating a cultural identity.

Eerik, the older brother, has committed real atrocities in defense of his homeland. For the last two decades, he fought against Russian soldiers in his own backyard and defined Finland primarily as an absence of Russia. In one sequence early in the film, Eerik and a local innkeeper come to blows over an empty shelf, a sign to Eerik that the family running the farmstead is harboring a secret stash of Russian Orthodox iconography. “Religion is everyone’s own business,” Eerik tells the innkeeper, “but the interest of the State isn’t.” Much of the violence and bloodshed in Sauna centers on the idea of what isn’t there, the voids where soldiers and peasants alike place the concept of nationhood. The conflict that this religious identification brings on — Swedish forces practiced an early form of Protestantism while the Russian soldiers were Orthodox — would not exist without the empty space that Finland represents.

While Sauna may offer an ahistorical look at the construction of Finland, the horrors of war are considerably fresher than the film lets on. One of the ideas woven throughout Sauna is the premise that peace and war require two very different forms of nationalism. Men like Eerik are the ones who defend the nation from it invaders — often through acts of violence and bloodshed that would be unconscionable in times of peace — but that does not make them the men best suited to create a new national identity in the void. Eerik carries the weight of his seventy-three murders gladly if it means that Knut will be the one to move the country forward. “He has always been the only glimpse of light in our family,” Eerik reveals during an unguarded moment with one of the townsfolk. He will gladly damn himself to save the soul of his younger brother.

It turns out that Annila and his crew had a particular period of Finnish history in mind. “Every Finn knows that ‘the building of the nation’ really happened after the first and second World War,” Annila offers, “so they can easily relate to what Erik now thinks about what should happen after the 25-year war.” For Annila, Eerik is a representation of the Finnish generation that fought in those two wars and the scars they bore on their country’s behalf. These veterans — the grandparents and great-grandparents of modern Finland — are “not bad people, of course not,” the director clarifies, “but they all carry the horrors of war on their shoulders.” We need look no further than the aforementioned opening credit to Sauna — the lines of the country drawn in blood — to remind ourselves that the construction and defense of the nation is rarely a bloodless period in any country’s history.

As the two brothers come closer to unlocking the secrets of the unmarked village, Annila’s film uses a traditional image of Finnish culture as a link between the country’s turbulent past and uncertain future. The idea of the sauna predates Finland’s period as a Christian country. “Before Christianity came to Finland,” Annila explains, “people really believed that sauna was the place where you can wash yourself clean. All the newborn babies were washed in a sauna; all the newlyweds and also the dead. The corpses were left in a sauna to bathe with the spirits of the afterworld at midnight and start their journey.” Here the film is able to reclaim Finland’s past — the periods in its history where it only existed as an extension of the Swedish empire — and draw a direct link to the country’s present. And it does so by using an image that is both recognizably Finnish and undeniably creepy: the dimly lit sauna, a place of rebirth, but also one of death.

This, ultimately, is what elevates Sauna beyond “mere” genre cinema — impressive as it may be in its craft and execution — and into the artistic and political realm of national cinema. Annila and his crew have pulled off the rare feat: creating a film that balances both the commercial requirements of a successful horror film with the cultural ambition of the national art film. Sauna is a film that actively engages in the construction of a Finnish tradition and does so through the guise of one of the best horror films of the last twenty years. While Andrew Higson may not have had a horror film in mind when he wrote about the concept of national cinema, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have approved of what Sauna has accomplished.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)