Saturday 13 May 2017

We Don't Go Back #48: Sauna (AKA Evil Rising) (2008)

The cheapest film I've bought for a long time, this, for the princely sum of ten pence sterling on eBay. AJ Annila's Finnish historical horror Sauna deserved a whole lot better than being saddled with a UK title that has nothing to do with its content (Evil Rising), and a presentation so lazy that they haven't even bothered to replace the title cards, just literally cutting it off the front of the film without a replacement, so the film as it stands doesn't even have a name at all (which is why my usual practice of putting the title at the front of the post failed this time). The subtitles weren't checked by a first language English speaker.

Sauna deserves better.
Is that a human over there?
It's 1595, and a war between Russia and Sweden has ended, and a group of Finns are representing Sweden and preparing to meet up with a small group of Russians to work out the border. This is a period of history that I'm wholly ignorant about (which for me is pretty much every period except that one period, which is entirely my bad), so I found some of the setup a little confusing, but soon worked out that Russia and Sweden had agreed to split Finland roughly down the middle, based upon the main religion of each area, so the Russian Orthodox people got to be in Russia and the Lutherans (presumably on the Western side) went to Sweden. The card at the front of the film tells us that the border commission do not make their rendezvous, and we see a shot of blood turning a mountain stream red and a bag of documents being found, including a border agreement that ends with a scrawled message begging for forgiveness. The implication we're supposed to draw right from the beginning is that no one gets out alive.

The scene shifts ten days back in time, and we meet the two leaders of the Finnish contingent. They're brothers. Knut (Tommi Eronen), the younger, is an academic, and not a fighter. He is sensitive, softly spoken. Erik (Ville Virtanen), the older, is a cavalry officer, although he doesn't spend much of the film on horseback. He wears glasses, and hates the weakness in himself that causes him to need them. His spectacles are rare enough that he needs to explain what they are to more than one other character. Erik is a bitter, hard-faced man unafraid to kill. He is not remorseless: he keeps a count of everyone he's killed. At the beginning of the film, he announces that he's just killed victim number 73, a farmer whose hospitality Erik and Knut took advantage of. It's not clear if Erik is justified in his murder of the man. He claims the man went for him with an axe, but we don't see the axe. Knut locked the man's daughter in a cellar, supposedly to protect her from Erik. But we realise that Knut has designs on the daughter too, and that perhaps it's not just Erik she needs protecting from. Erik promises Knut that he'll let the girl out when they go.
I've never seen peasants so clean.
Erik doesn't. I kept expecting it to come out that he murdered her too, but that doesn't happen: he just didn't let her out, so she likely starved to death. Before even he tells Knut this, Knut has begun to see an apparition of the girl, black slime all down her dress, her face obscured. He thinks she's following. Of course, she isn't.

The Russians and the Finns view each other with caution, for the most part, although the Russians' decent and avuncular commanding officer Semensky (Viktor Klimenko) holds the group together. Still, inflexible Rogosin (Rain Tolk), a man who had his own mother burned as a witch when he was only ten years old, and secretive Musko (Karri Ketonen) clash with Erik, particularly Musko, who Erik accuses (correctly, it turns out) of having homosexual desire for his brother.

Lost in a seemingly trackless swamp, it looks like they'll end up killing each other until they come across a strange, lone structure in the swamp, a dirty white featureless building with a single doorway leading into blackness. It's a weird anachronism of a building; in its simplicity it is uncanny.
Knut sees something he doesn't want to see.
Nearby they find an uncharted village. Its inhabitants don't identify as Russian Orthodox or Lutheran – they don't have a church at all – and the peasants wear inexplicably clean garments, something that Erik notices and is disturbed by, but not as much as the discovery that the village has 73 inhabitants. The building outside the village is a sauna (which in Scandinavia carries certain social and cultural assumptions), but at the same time is, through oblique, hushed comments from the strange villagers, understood to be more and other than that.

Sauna is both fascinating and frustrating; some plot revelations are anticlimactic (the revelation that the girl in the cellar is probably dead being the chief one), some things never really get any kind of payoff. You sort of think that the protagonists finding a dog that's clawed its own eyes out might lead somewhere, but it doesn't; neither does the finding of an ikon of a hooded figure that clearly has some sort of menace to it. And some of the things that happen in the film give me a very strong feeling that I'm missing something; it's not that these things come from nowhere, exactly, it's that the film seems to rest on a cultural background with base assumptions that I don't share.
The younger Spore makes beautiful maps.
An excellent essay about Sauna by Madeleine Le Despencer in Folk Horror Revival Field Studies makes the point that the way Finnish people use saunas carries an etiquette, history and even a set of superstitions. Certainly, the horror that Erik, Knut and the Russians bring upon the villagers – and what happens is absolutely their fault – is focussed through the sauna. As the film progresses, cleanliness and "filth" (as the subtitled dialogue has it – and here is as good a place as any to remember that before its release the film's working title was Filth) keep being compared as symbols, and the sauna seems to attract both things. Symbolically, I suppose, it's a place where people are made clean, and as a nexus for social contact that cleansing involves the reintegration of someone into society.

The sauna outside the village is a place of absolute darkness, allowing no illumination from outside, and not even, once you entered, showing you where you came in; the way the darkness extends beyond the inner boundaries of the building reminds me a little of the corridors in House of Leaves, but also weirdly of the psychological space of Michael Moorcock's science fiction novel The Black Corridor. Before the soldiers arrived, the villagers found themselves transformed by the sauna; after they arrive, it begins to exert a malevolent, vengeful force over everyone.

Early on in the film, Semensky has a monologue where he describes "filth" as the proof our bodies have touched, the thing that our memories are made of. He's a humane, decent man, probably the most humane of all the soldiers, an amateur naturalist and something of a philosopher. But it doesn't work. His philosophy turns out to be wrong. 
Is it too late to go back?
Erik has done some unforgiveable things; Knut has let him. But Erik's evident guilt doesn't make it better (and why should it? Just because the murderer is sorry, it doesn't bring his victims back to life). On the question of whether one who has done the sort of things Erik has can be redeemed, the answer isn't just a negation; the film implies that his sin (which the film drenches in black slime) stains everyone else, that it's a stinking, spreading blot on existence. And the folkloric assumptions that surround the sauna – that I only dimly understand – frame the metaphorical horror of Erik's deeds. 

For a film clearly made on a shoestring, Sauna is ambitious, intelligent, and thought-provoking. It also has, right at the end, one of the single most nightmarish images I've seen in a film for a long, long time. It's not so much misanthropic as pessimistic; it despairs of human nature, rather than holds it in contempt.

And no, it's not perfect by a long way, and it doesn't quite manage to catch all the balls it throws in the air (and the balls that it does manage to catch aren't all caught exactly gracefully) but I would rather watch Sauna again than any number of less ambitious movies, any time.