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"Wash your sins."
The second feature-length film by the Finnish director AJ Annila, Sauna, premiered in 2008, is a piece of Surreal Horror that delves into the darkness of the human heart.
The year is 1595, and the 25-year war between the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire is finally over. A new border is drawn through the contested area of Finland by an expedition consisting of agents of both Crowns. From the side of Sweden there are two brothers, Erik and Knut Spore, ethnic Finns who both seek recognition in their own way. Erik is an aging soldier who seeks to earn land for his family, while Knut is an enterprising scholar seeking a tenure in the University of Stockholm, intending to present a map of the previously unmapped Finnish lands as proof of his skills.
On their way, the brothers murder a peasant man in a fit of rage, and leave his daughter to die, locked in a cellar. As they keep going, visions and fits of guilt haunt them, as they debate whether they should return to let the girl out. It is then they come across an unmarked village in the middle of a swamp, with a mysterious sauna standing on its edge. The superstitious villagers are mortally afraid of the place, but at the same time hold a belief that in this sauna a person can wash away their past sins for good. The sauna beckons the brothers to step inside, but is the person who steps in the same who comes out?
This film gives examples of:
- Age Without Youth: Not one of the villagers has died ever since they came to the abandoned village as refugees, nor has anyone gotten new children. But the elderly keep aging, and becoming increasingly frail, yet are unable to die.
- Arc Words: "Come back", "Wash your sins", "filth".
- Blind Without'Em: Knut gave Erik a pair of glasses, a remarkable rarity in the 16th century, knowing about his brother's bad eyesight. Erik complains that he used to get along just fine, but now has become so dependent on the glasses that he can't even tell people apart from close up without them, if he doesn't hear their voice.
- Blood From the Mouth: Along with loose teeth.
- Book Ends: The film starts with a backpack being picked up from a river. It ends showing how it fell there.
- Campbell Country: The nameless village definately counts as a Nordic example of the trope.
- The Corruption: The touch of the Ultimate Evil manifests as this, resulting in the loss of teeth, oozing of the black filth, insanity and death.
- Creepy Child: There's something strange about the only child in the village. Namely, that she's an androgynous girl in boy's clothing. You can tell instantly that there's something off about "him", but can't immediately put your finger on it. Ultimately subverted in that she's one of the most normal and innocent people around.
- Dark Is Evil: Not dark clothes or hair, or appearance in any way; simply the darkness itself. The fear of the dark is a running theme in the film.
- Deliberately Monochrome: There is no color in this film exept orange firelight and red blood.
- Eye Scream: Some of the people who are touched by the Ultimate Evil claw out their eyes. Humans aren't the only ones suspectible, either - one of the first signs that something is wrong in the swamp is when they find a dead dog that has clawed out its eyes, as well.
- The Faceless: The unknown victim of The Corruption seen at the end, whose entire face is replaced with a hole that oozes the black filth all over the place.
- Gray and Gray Morality: Neither Sweden or Russia is morally superior compared to one another, and the people of Finland don't generally give a damn about which side's soldiers raid and ravage their lands, or which crown sends in their tax collectors afterwards.
- Genius Loci: The Sauna itself.
- The Grim Reaper: Not present personally, but an old icon is found from a shack that invokes the image by depicting only a monk whose face is completely hidden in the shadow of his hood. Some have interpreted this as an attempted anthropomorphization of the Ultimate Evil.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Erik claims that he attacked the peasant because he noticed he was going for his axe, and had to protect himself and his brother. But Knut says that he never even saw an axe in the scene. He's also the one with the better eyesight, and less paranoia.
- Infant Immortality. First appears to be played straight, but ultimately subverted hard.
- Ironic Echo: "It's me."
- Meaningful Background Event: It's actually in the foreground, but so subtle that it's easy to miss, rendering a later scene more difficult to understand: when Erik looks in the swamp's water early in the film, he sees it filled with the corpses of all he has killed, as barely visible reflections on the surface. Then he stabs his sword in the water and they are gone, leaving the viewer to wonder if he even saw anything or not.
- Mind Screw: Oh yeah.
- Nothing Is Scarier: Very little is shown, and almost nothing is revealed, and damn if it isn't creepy as hell.
- Not So Different: Erik argues this to Knut, reminding that it was he who locked the girl in the cellar, not to protect her from Erik as he claims, but because he wanted to rape her, and put her there to resist the urge.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: From the Russians' side, Baron Semensky is a remarkably laid back and good-natured man who bears no overt grudges against Sweden, and makes some good observations of Erik's motivations for constantly seeking a fight with the Russian soldiers of the expedition.
- Religious Horror: It combines elements of Christianity and Finnish paganism, to the point that there's debates on which religion it actually represents more closely.
- Sauna of Death: Well, it's a sauna and it's deadly. But the trope itself is averted - it's neither locked nor dangerously hot. It's just evil.
- Shell Shocked Senior: Erik is only 41 years old, but in the 16th century that is an extremely old age for a soldier, and he demonstrates just about every aspect of this trope.
- Sinister Geometry: The titular sauna is a small, white rectangular building with a black, rectangular doorway. So simple. So undefinable. So terrifying.
- Stringy Haired Ghost Girl: A rare blonde example, though the black gunk she oozes makes it hard to tell.
- Surreal Horror: It owes much of its bleak, minimalistic style to the Japanese horror movies.
- Swamps Are Evil: This one definitely is, to the point that in the end neither the representatives of Sweden or Russia are willing to mark themselves as its rightful owners, claiming it to one another in hopes that no-one else will ever enter it again.
- Tears of Blood: Well, thick, black filth. A large crucifix statue is at one point shown bleeding the stuff from its face, and all the victims of the Ultimate Evil follow the suit.
- Thicker Than Water: The Spore brothers have almost nothing in common, but their bond of blood is all but unbreakable.
- Town with a Dark Secret
- Ultimate Evil: The thing in the darkness is never shown, but it's there. Whether it's a sentient, malevolent creature, or simply an undefinable force, is something left at the viewers' imagination.
- War Is Hell.
- What You Are in the Dark: Knut especially struggles with this question.
- You Cannot Grasp the True Form: Used in the film, almost word from word: "Perhaps it is not really a sauna, but something that we cannot comprehend."