Sauna: a Finnish steam bath in which the steam is provided by water thrown on hot stones; also : a bathhouse or room used for such a bath (Merriam Webster)
The afore-mentioned sauna is the mute central character of this 2008 Finnish existential horror-drama. Apart from its physical presence it also describes the feel of the film – a brooding and claustrophobic, oftentimes suffocating, ultimately clarifying experience. Think if you will, like an Andrei Tarkovski film, with some elements from Guillermo De Toro.
In 1565, the recent aftermath of a long-running war between Sweden and Russia, two sets of people, one from each side, are jointly performing the task of marking the borders of the new territories of their individual countries. The main focus is on the Swedish side with lead characters Erik (Ville Virtanen), an aging veteran of bloody conflict, and his brother Knut (Tommi Eronen), a softer-minded academic. On the way to meeting up with their Russian counterparts Erik and Knut have been involved in the murder of a Russian sympathizer farmer and quite possibly also his daughter. Knut's guilt gives him repeated visions of the girl calling for him, while Erik carries his own burden of the innumerable acts of blood he has committed during the war and uncertainity over his place at its conclusion. The dynamic of the relationship between Erik and Knut forms a major pivot of the story.
Making their way through isolated terrain where even the compass is not reliable (shades of Picnic at Hanging Rock here?) they come across a village set in the middle of a swamp. This strange village is composed almost entirely of old people and there is only a single child. The party put up at the village while they bicker over which territory it belongs to and try to question the inhabitants about its origin. The titular sauna occupies a central position in the village, and yet is avoided by its inhabitants: they have a legend that it can wash away one's sins without the need for a God, but that redemption has its price. This is a theme with a lot of ramifications in the Christian setup, which is reflected with a heavy use of religious motifs; Ingmar Bergman has often meditated on similar themes in both his period and contemporary films. But the film is closer in spirit to Andrei Tarkovski's Stalker or Solaris.
The bulk of Sauna's horror is implied in the emotional reactions of its characters. We see the ragtag alliance disintegrating as their pragmatic outlook crumbles fast under the oppressive influence of their strange surroundings. There are deaths yes, but these are not set-pieces like in some other horror films, the emphasis is on the effect that each death has on the mindscape of the survivors. The more outre elements are in comparison a little weak and derivative, but they do not significantly diminish the overall power of this brooding descent into, no, not a maelstrom, but a still deep pool of madness.