“Sisu”, text states at the beginning of the film with that word as its title, “is a Finnish word that cannot be translated”. This assertion is immediately undermined by following text which proceeds precisely to offer a translation: “It means a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination. Sisu manifests itself when all hope is lost.” Perhaps what is intended by the original claim is that no single English word can substitute for it – although Wikipedia suggests ‘guts’ or ‘grit’ as close equivalents. Or perhaps the text is referring to the word’s status as a uniquely Finnish quality. Plenty of countries, of course, have intrepid, unstoppable heroes – but few can claim them as central to the national character. Finns pride themselves on their Stoic tenacity in the face of impossible odds, greatly valuing this part of their make-up – which is sometimes cited to explain the stout resistance that Finland put up to invasion from overwhelming Soviet forces during the Winter War.
Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), the protagonist of Sisu, is a veteran and hero of that war, and will, pushed up against it, once again become the embodiment of sisu – but for now, at the film’s beginning, this grizzled, grey-bearded old man with no name has turned his back on combat and subsists alone – but for his dog and horse – in the wilderness of Lapland, where he is prospecting the river for gold. Only his torso, bared when he bathes in the waters, charts his history of violence and suffering in deep scars and bullet holes.
It is 1944, and in keeping with the terms of the Moscow Armistice, Finland is now driving German troops from its territory. Living out on the margins of the margins, Korpi is insulated from all this, only ever seeing war as a fiery glow on the horizon – but when he discovers first an ingot in the stream, and then a substantial seam in a dug hole, the old timer is galvanised to get back on his horse and head back to civilisation, with a pick and rifle slung over his shoulder, and satchels of gold behind the saddle. Soon he will pass – and do his best to ignore – a platoon of Nazi soldiers in retreat from their campaign of scorched earth, landmine laying and public hangings, with a trailer full of Finnish women as their war booty. Yet once SS Obersturmführer Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie), his sharp-shooting lieutenant Wolf (Jack Doolan) and Schütze (Onni Tommila) have seen the gold, and recognise in it their pathway to safe and affluent exile abroad, Korpi will be pushed back into fighting – and the well-armed, battle-experienced German soldiers serving under Helldorf are about to learn that this ‘grandpa’ dies very hard.
Written and directed by Jalmari Helander (Rare Exports, 2010; Big Game, 2014), and divided into seven chapters whose plain-speaking titles (‘The Gold’, ‘The Nazis’, ‘Kill ‘Em All’) aptly advertise sensationalist thrills to come, Sisu is an ultraviolent pulpfest pitting an easily underestimated underdog against a whole army of German invaders, and affording viewers the simple yet undeniably appealing pleasure of seeing Nazis punched, stabbed, shot, hanged and blown up in graphically bloody fashion. For here the guts and grit that typify the spirit of sisu come gloriously literalised.
Still, like the concept after which it is named, Sisu is a supposedly all-Finnish affair that in fact merely localises ideas and idioms that can be found in all kinds of other cultures. Its hyperbolic events may unfold in a real time and place – the Lapland War that forms a part of Finnish history – but its legendary hero is of a type, or types, familiar from cinemas from outside of Finland. For this horse-riding, gold-prospecting, extremely laconic (he does not speak till the very end of the film) gun toter is a figure recognisable from any spaghetti western; his relentless revenge in canine company marks him as akin to the protagonists of George Miller’s Mad Max 2 (1981) and Chad Stahelski’s John Wick films; his backstory as a “one-man death squad” whose rogue military record boasts over 300 Russian kills, and his tendency to stitch up his own gaping injuries, obviously make him Finland’s precursor to John Rambo; and his single-handed taking on of Nazis in a traveling convoy is straight out of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – even if Korpi’s treasure-hunting motives will prove ultimately more self-serving and cynical than Indiana Jones’ ever were.
None of this is a criticism, of course. No doubt Sisu is informed by a love of the personality and ethos that define Helander’s homeland, and it comes out at a time when Finland finds itself once again threatened by an expansionist, sabre-rattling Russia – but much as Korpi will prove to be looking out more for himself than for his country, the film’s strongest allegiance is not to the nationalist mood of irrepressible resilience but to the pure joys of genre-fied escapism, which it delivers in spades, and with not a little dark humour, from start to mud- and blood-spattered Finnish.
strap: Jalmari Helander’s gloriously hyperviolent Lapland caper kills Nazis, confounds genres and cynically deconstructs Finland’s national character
© Anton Bitel