Sauna is horror for the arthouse crowd. With this film, Finnish director AJ Annila has crafted an atmospheric slice of grim terror. Revealing itself to be a slow-burner with a few surprising jolts along the way, Sauna will test the patience of horror fans looking for non-stop cheap thrills and kills. However viewers who are willing to go the distance will be amply rewarded with an intelligent and thoughtful rumination on guilt and redemption.
As the film opens, the year is 1595 and the 25 year war between Sweden and Russia has ended. One of the after-effects of the war entails the creation of a new border between both lands. The completion of this task has been assigned to two separate commissions. The film follows one of these commissions which include members from both countries. Erik and Knut Spore are brothers on the Swedish side of the commission. Erik is a battle-hardened soldier while Knut has been largely shielded from the war, following more intellectual pursuits at home. They also happen to be on the commission for vastly different reasons. Erik sees the creation of the border as the logical culmination of the war which in a way validates all the bloodshed that came before, including the 73 people that he personally killed. Knut wants to map uncharted parts of the land in the hope that it will guarantee him a professorial position in the geography department.
Erik's barely contained aggression manifests itself in an ugly manner when he and Knut encounter a Russian farmer and his daughter. Blinded by his ingrained hatred for Russians, Erik kills the farmer under the pretext of self-defense. Being fully aware of what his older brother is capable of, Knut hides the farmer's daughter in a cellar for her own protection. Before I make Knut sound too noble, I must mention the look that crosses his face. A look of lust that indicates the daughter may not have been too safe with Knut either. As Knut and Erik beat a hasty retreat, Erik mentions that he will release the girl from the cellar. After rejoining the commission, Knut starts seeing visions of a ghostly girl that may or may not be the farmer's daughter. It is at this point that Erik reveals he never released the girl from the cellar. Shocked at his brother's brutality and consumed by guilt, Knut plans on going back for the girl when the commission comes upon a curious sight. They find an unmarked village in the middle of a swamp with a desolate sauna located next to it.
I don't dare reveal any more of the plot but suffice it to say, events slowly escalate in the village with bleeding statues, teenage girls who dress as boys, absent Russian monks and 73 villagers who happen to be terrified of the sauna with an entrance that resembles a gaping mouth in a featureless face. Since I've brought it up, let me comment on the sauna in the swamp. After Erik and Knut, it is the third most prominent character in the film. From its very first shot, when Knut catches a glimpse of it with a mixture of awe and fear in his face, the sauna is a mysterious and intimidating presence. By repeatedly inserting static shots of the sauna between events back at the village, Annila manages to ratchet up the suspense and the creeping dread without falling back on typical horror tropes. To be fair, there are ghostly visions, gouged out eyes, chewed up tongues and substantial amounts of tar black blood. However, absolutely none of these elements show up in the way that you would expect them to as Annila rearranges the horror beats into a rhythm of his own.
Going back to the Spore brothers, I can't say enough great things about Ville Virtanen and Tommi Eronen's characterization of Erik and Knut respectively. Erik's frustration at having spent his life finding purpose in bloodshed, is perfectly embodied by Ville's portrayal of tightly coiled rage. When he explains to a villager the hopes he had for Knut, Ville allows his gaunt face to relax into a smile that is surprisingly warm given all we've seen before. In that moment, we know all we need to know about his motivations and the conflict that drives him. Tommi's portrayal of Knut is less showy but no less impressive. He starts the film as a privileged intellectual who has had the good fortune of not sullying his conscience with the horrors of war. This makes the brutality surrounding the Russian farmer and his daughter all the more devastating for him. By the time the film ends, you will have an opportunity to draw your own conclusions about exactly what happened to Erik, Knut and the villagers based on the stunning final images. I can't say I have a conclusive explanation but I have a theory and I will enjoy testing that theory with future viewings.