Sauna. 2008. Directed by Antti-Jussi Annila. Screenplay by Iiro Küttner.
Starring Ville Virtanen, Tommi Eronen, Viktor Kilmenko, Rain Tolk, Kari Ketonen, Sonja Petäjäjärvi, Vilhelmiina Virkkunen, Taisto Reimaluoto, Ismo Kallio, Kati Outinen, Dick Idman, & Ivo Kubecka.
Rated 14A. 83 minutes.
Antti-Jussi Annila’s Sauna joins the sub-genre of war horror, a relatively limited one compared to others. This isn’t specifically about battles, though the spectre of war looms over every inch of the story. The Russo-Swedish War (1590-1959) is a centrepiece for psychological horror that erupts into the physical world as two Finnish brothers – the older brutal soldier Eerik (Ville Virtanen) and the younger academic Knut (Tommi Eronen) – help a Russian patrol mark a new border between Sweden and Russia. They arrive at a strange village in the backwoods where there shouldn’t be a village, where the brothers face their respective sins with clear eyes.
Annila’s film is surreal and terrifying because of what it says about the borders of the human soul in relation to the borders between this world and heaven/hell. The entire story hinges on the concept of borders— where they join, where they separate, and from what they prevent us reaching and understanding. Eerik’s journey is the focus because he lives in a liminal space of blindness, both literally and figuratively: he’s losing his sight and also can’t see ahead, to the future, while his worldview is steeped in death.
Liminal space is everywhere in Sauna. Again involving borders. Perhaps the most significant border here is between past and future. The present itself is one of those liminal spaces, never exactly past and it isn’t yet future. Eerik’s experience in the village, and the sauna they discover there, forces him to confront an inability to move forward because his body and soul are trapped in the past by guilt over his sin.
“Do you swear to give your soul as collateral for this border, so the rulers of Sweden and Russia can trust your oath?”
Modernity is a movement away from what’s considered primitive/pre-modern. Iiro Küttner’s screenplay isn’t arbitrarily set in the late 16th century. The early modern period is a perfect temporal setting. The Russo-Swedish War of 1590-1595 is likewise perfect because it was considered an especially barbaric war. Moving towards modernity is a reconciliation with and atonement for the sins of the past. Eerik has trouble moving out of wartime. He’s no longer a “civilised person” due to his actions as a soldier.
Modernity creates further divisions, too. The separation of borders – demarcating people from other people over imaginary lines – is akin to the separation of body and soul, or, in a manner of speaking, existential death. If we separate body and soul we become an empty shell. If we separate our body from our mind we can excuse so much of what our body’s doing due to our state of mind— like Kurt Vonnegut so eloquently put it, “My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.” The body and soul must operate together. Eerik’s body and soul are two distinct entities as he doesn’t care about the theological consequences of his wartime killing. Once he and Knut enter the village he begins to see it differently, and the village, which sits “exactly in the middle of the swamp,” takes on the liminality of a purgatorial space (i.e. Limbo).
This relates to the separation of heaven and hell from earth. In reality, they exist in one space: within us. John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav‘n of Hell, a Hell of Heav‘n” (lines 233-234). The mind can also be viewed as a liminal space, in a state of flux between one state or another at any given point. The film visually presents this division by way of the physical space of the sauna, pulling from the actual folklore associated with saunas in Finland. Matti Savolainen writes that the “darkened and steamy sauna has been considered a sanctuary where one makes a symbolic connection between the microcosm of people and the macrocosm of spirits and gods” (Gothic Topographies: Language, Nation Building, and Race). When Eerik finally enters the sauna during the film’s climax, he’s stepping into a space within himself, descending to the hell inside him where he must finally witness the viciousness and brutality of war he has perpetuated in order to move forward.
Blindness is a prominent, important theme. Eerik is blind to the future, unable to deal with modernity doing away with the past. At the fore is his concern about morality. He’s done away with morals in wartime, but once the war’s over he must move forward into more modern times which will require him to accept the truth of his actions. The symbols of modernity are all around him. He can’t stand the advent of eyeglasses, despite his vision consistently getting worse. He doesn’t drink out of a fancy tea set like the Russians, who’ve got silverware with them out in the wilderness. His loyalty to the old ways – that existential death of separating the body and soul – prevents him from seeing a way forward into modernity.
A scene embodying this involves Eerik searching through icons left behind by the monks who’ve mysteriously disappeared from the village. He finds a painting of a death-like figure, which breathes cold air onto his face, fogging his glasses— death literally obscures his vision through the modern apparatus meant to provide better sight. This is representative of the death he has caused by his own hand that won’t allow him to move ahead until he bears witness to the worst of sin which war has wrought. The film’s final moments feature Eerik forced by the sauna, in the form of his brother, to watch as one of the Russian soldiers, now a faceless monster dripping black bile from the void where its face used to be, consumes a little girl, the village’s sole symbol of innocence.
The irony is, like the others who’ve died or been injured in the village, Eerik’s only able to ‘see’ clearly once his eyes are removed— the same black bile that pours from the monster’s face pours from his eyes, too. He goes from totally blind with two eyes to being capable of (in)sight with no eyes. This calls to mind a passage in the Bible from Matthew 5:29: “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” Although Eerik’s sacrified his eyes, he has also eradicated the liminal space of Limbo in which he exists. He’s bridged the corporeal gap between heaven and hell, accepting his sins. Most see the end as tragic. The child is a figurative character, symbolising the last scraps of innocence in that land. Innocence’s death enables Eerik to understand the atrocities of war and accept the part he’s played in the greater sins of the state, not solely his individual sins.
“Wounds will heal at the place where they happened”
Our souls don’t escape what our bodies have done. We, as flesh and blood humans, must ultimately take responsibility for our actions, accepting punishment over being absolved by a higher power. We can’t lock our sins away and deny them, the way Knut locks a girl away in the cellar early in the film. The sauna is a symbolic space where sin is confronted and cleansed— an open space without a door(/borders), and this liminality allows those who step inside to embrace both aspects of themselves, body and soul.
Sauna cleverly uses history and religious faith to spin a tale of guilt, sin, and redemption. The ending doesn’t necessarily wind up at a positive state of redemption, though Eerik’s redeemed, albeit at the cost of passing over into death. The war at the centre of the screenplay could’ve been any war plucked out of history because, at the core of the story, the central theme is atonement. Knut’s plot is neither unimportant nor forgettable. His tale of sin and redemption is intensely disturbing. The plot concerning Eerik is the primary focus for its direct inclusion of war’s soul-corrupting horror. His journey reveals hell is not some other existential place, rather it occupies a physical space, represented by the sauna, and the punishment is corporeal.
We ourselves embody (heaven and) hell. There are no borders to the soul, it’s yet another liminal space. Our punishment comes not after death so much as it does in life. Our punishment is the guilt with which we live and the sin that corrodes our sight, blinding us to how to move forward out of the past and the old ways. Sauna sees the dichotomy of body and soul as one whole entity. Eerik’s acceptance of an earthly punishment is his reconciliation with his sins and atonement for them. His redemption comes in his death. We do not atone for what we’ve done in some abstract, existential vision of hell. We do so while we are alive, or we never atone at all.