Sauna is a 2008 Finnish horror film directed by Antti-Jussi Annila that follows the travels of a company assigning a new national border after the end of the Russo-Swedish war in 1595. If that doesn’t already sound unique enough, things take a turn for the mysterious and surreal when the group encounters a strange village and even more perplexing structure in the middle of a massive swamp deep in the wilderness. If you’re interested in uncovering what happens, we definitely recommend giving this genre entry a go prior to reading our sinfully spoilerific review or listening to our even more in-depth discussion in the podcast. Still on the fence? Give the trailer a watch and then decide. The choice is yours.
Reviewed by: Jake
I’ve been mulling over how to summarize what takes place in Sauna for a while now, and I’ve been unable to think of a way to do this without attaching a disclaimer that this is a vague movie that leaves a lot up to your own interpretation. For the most part, I think it is a better (and certainly more unique) film for it. I have an idea of how things played out, but this is one of those movies that will leave different viewers with different takeaways.
What we know for sure - the film takes place at the end of the Russo-Swedish War, in 1595. We are introduced to a company of men from both the Russian and Swedish sides of the affair, tasked with establishing a new border between the two lands. On the Swedish side we have Erik, a bespectacled tough guy who keeps count of the number of people he has killed and always stabs someone way more times than is necessary, and his brother, Knut, a nerd who is good at cartography and occasionally considers raping young girls. On the Russian side is Semensky, a senior military figure hellbent on having some flora/fauna named after him, and his bodyguards Rogosin and Musko. Musko is gay and has a thing for Knut. Proper Breakfast Club type stuff here, you guys.
The movie opens with a tone-setting scene of Erik absolutely obliterating a guy with a knife because he’s a Russian sympathiser and holds out on providing he and Knut with proper provisions as requested. As this happens, Knut weighs the desire he has to rape the farmer’s daughter. Ultimately he locks her in the farm cellar and the two leave, abandoning her to a slow and torturous death of starvation in the pitch black depths of the cold ground. Nice.
The group continues on their journey and encounters a swamp, where things take a turn for the surreal. Knut begins seeing apparitions of the young girl, who guards her face with her hands. Suffice to say her ‘face’ is really just a pit of black goo… Talk about a butterface.
Eventually, after a classic getting lost sequence, the group encounters a village on what they believe is the northern edge of the swamp. Relieved to have made their way through but puzzled as to why there is a village here, they begin asking questions. All signs point to a mysterious “sauna” that the villagers found and settled by. There is a good deal of exposition that reveals a few key bits of information. Number one, the sauna predates a fairly ancient monastery that was originally on-site. Monks discovered the ancient landmark and set up shop because their lazy asses thought they could weasel around their sins just by stepping foot inside.
Number two, there are 73 inhabitants in this impossible little village, which is actually in the dead-center of the swamp. For those keeping score, that’s the exact amount Erik so meticulously counts as the number that have died by his hand. It’s not weird or anything....
Things quickly and rapidly deteriorate in the village, and soon Knut has disappeared into the sauna, followed shortly thereafter by the rest of the villagers, save for the one child in the whole town. Erik knows the end is nigh and that he must enter the sauna. He gives the signed border agreement, in which he clowns the Russians by assigning the hell-hole to them, to the little girl to take to their designated meet up spot. He then hangs dong for like the eleventh time in the movie and enters the sauna to have Knut(‘s spirit) crush his face into a jelly. The girl runs until she reaches a river where a faceless dead body springs to life and mauls her to death. The end.
What the Movie Does Right
The most notable aspect of this film to me is just how fucking unique it is. How many other movies (forget horror) can you think of that are about the Russo-Swedish war? Admittedly, there might be a bit of a blind spot at play here because I don’t watch many Scandinavian or Russian films. However, add to that the bananas plot and you have a strange horror brew that is like nothing else I’ve ever seen.
Another big success for the movie is how beautiful it is. And by beautiful, I mean stark, bleak and haunting. It’s extremely well shot and captures the essence of the film very well. This is aided by some great costume design, ultimately creating a fantastic mise en scène.
Last, but not least, I have to give some props to the story. As you’ll see shortly (and in the ratings), I personally didn’t love the extreme nature of the ambiguity involved with the story, but this is a movie that you will want to talk about after it's over. I recommended we watch this and give it the full review treatment because of how it left me searching for more, so that in and of itself is a plus for this puzzlebox of a movie.
What the Movie Does Wrong
I’m struggling to find a lot to put in this category because I wouldn’t necessarily consider the following issues to be missteps so much as warning signs for the potential viewer. Overall, this is not your everyday horror viewers’ film. It asks something of you as the viewer, especially for us here in the U.S. that are making the leap into a foreign language experience.
The first thing we discussed as a group is the pacing of the film. This is about as slow burn as slow burns get. That’s not to say it doesn’t offer any chills, but there are only a couple moments of out & out horror in the movie, and its murky story makes for a more cerebral experience than most. Unless you are in the right frame of mind, I could see the film losing your attention. And the movie can’t really afford losing your attention given it’s already hazy nature.
The other main element we discussed was the story. Told you I’d come back to it. I consider myself to be pretty decent at discerning what is happening on screen, and I have a pretty long history on the site of giving props to the more ambiguous side of storytelling. However, I have no fucking idea what happened at the end of this movie. I’m not sure it matters much to the overall plot and message, as I’m pretty sure the whole point was to be a surreal experience illustrating a limbo where these characters are being put face-to-face with their sins. One part of me thinks that’s enough, but the other is left with questions that I did want answered. The mixture of the gut-punch final scene with the ambiguity of the rest of the film felt a bit off-balance to me.
Story: 5 - I had immense difficulty landing on a score for this category, so ultimately I took the good & the bad as outlined above and landed on a middle ground-type score. I will say that this is as low as I can really see giving this movie’s story, and I think one could justify going much higher because there is very likely a lot under the surface. I’ve now seen this twice and feel like I gained more insight on repeat viewing. It doesn’t establish rules and then break them, and as far as I can tell, there are no noticeable plot holes. That being said, it’s kind of hard to have plot holes in a plot as ambiguous as this. It’ll likely hit some folks very well, and others very poorly.
World-Building / Immersion: 8 - The mise en scène is very well realized and I found myself becoming more and more on-edge as the movie progressed. I was interested in uncovering the nature of the sauna and the mysterious village for the duration of the film, and the sense of dread it builds kept me creeped out the whole time.
Scare-Factor: 6.5 - As I just mentioned, this movie does the creeping dread thing really well. On top of that, there are a couple frightening moments sprinkled in, but the slow nature of the film will not be for everyone seeking a more conventional horror fix. The ideas posed here are bone-chilling and brutal, and those are what stick with you.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 7 - Great costuming and set design in what was mostly a judicious lack thereof-type movie. The end relied on CG and it looked ok, while the blood effects left something to be desired.
Overall: 7.5 - If this wasn’t already abundantly clear, I’ll repeat that this is not a movie for everyone. You have to get over some hurdles (foreign language, slow-burn nature, ambiguous story) to get at the essence of this film. If you can do this, it’s an extremely unique experience and I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it. Very worthy of adding to your horror repertoire if you are in the mood for the trifecta of entry barriers mentioned above. This will appeal to a thinner pool than most, but it has a ton to offer.