When I was pitching Sisu to a friend of mine to watch that night, I had to explain to him that it’s less a classic World War II movie as it is an action movie that happens to be set during the Lapland War. He came up with the description ‘Finnish Rambo,’ and during the film he called it “like if Quentin Tarantino made Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained as the same movie.” However you put it, Sisu is one hell of a ride.
‘Sisu’ is a Finnish word meaning something akin to ‘gutsiness,’ implying tenacity, perseverance, grit, and determination. It is a good description for the main character, Aatami Korpi (played with stoicism by Jorma Tommila), who is introduced prospecting for gold in Lapland, Finland’s north, when he is harassed by retreating Nazis fleeing to Norway after Operation Barbarossa was repelled by the Red Army. The Nazis, led by Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie), soon realize the mistake they made; since this is an action movie, the rest of the film is Aatami Korpi killing them all brutally.
By God, this movie is bloody. Tarantino is a good comparison; the violence is always visceral and messy, and you see plenty of grisly or otherwise creative deaths. The film finds plenty of interesting ways to depict violence such as a great scene in a lake, or another one onboard a plane. It is overwhelmingly person-to-person combat, with guns or knives, and the occasional usage of heavier German weaponry. The Finnish army only gets a cameo appearance; the rest is a good, wholesome story of a simple Finn dismembering fascists.
So much of this is sold in the contrast drawn between Korpi and Helldorf. In many ways, they are quite similar; they are both nigh-supernaturally driven people who simply refuse to give up. What the German is afflicted with is arrogance; he uses his men as tools, disposing of them cavalierly, and is time and again outwitted by the Finn who just wants a payout. Helldorf’s rage is blind, whereas Korpi’s is simple, direct, and personal.
Korpi himself is such an interesting character, and Tommila gives him such nuance and depth in a performance of very few words. You get the impression that he’s tired of violence, having come back from fighting in the Finnish Army, and just wants to live a simple life in Lapland. It’s all done with masterful body language, both in the fight and out of it. He ends up being almost a memetic figure, both “man literally too angry to die” and a man of “focus, determination, and sheer fucking will.” He’s almost a force of nature, but you never forget his humanity.
One thing that is so striking to me, especially on a second viewing, is the way the film uses color. From beginning to the end, the color of everything is tinted blue, rendering German feldgrau as teal. This is a bit odd at first, especially as it affects the landscape (beautifully shot, akin to that of a Western in its love of the land), but it ultimately hints at the bright colors of an old war comic book, very fitting as it is a story fit for a comic book (and I mean that in a good way).
It is a film that will greatly please those liberals and leftists who, dismayed by the ascendant far-right, want to see Naziism shown as its brutal self. They are certainly not kind here, and the film strikes the right balance between hideous cruelty and incompetence that the actual Third Reich demonstrated. It’s interesting that such a movie came out of Finland, given how that country spent much of the war fighting alongside the Nazis against the Soviet Union (albeit after first being invaded by the Red Army; the Soviet Union did not cover itself in glory in its relations with Finland during that period). It strikes me as a move designed to appeal to both Finns, who get to see one of their own as an action hero, and an international audience, who wouldn’t be alienated by a protagonist fighting Allied troops. Our main character is mentioned as having fought the Soviets before the events of this film, which is perfectly plausible for a man so skilled at killing. In any case, it could be used as a good (if bloody) introduction to an under-discussed theater of that war.
There is really only one thing I found galling about this movie: the vast majority of the dialogue is in English. This is clearly to appeal to an international audience, but I can’t help but find that it took me out of the experience just a tad (although less so on a second viewing). The protagonist is clearly a Finn, the setting clearly Finland, the villains clearly German. I, for one, have no problem watching subtitled films, and appreciate linguistic diversity in film (Inglorious Basterds, while doubtlessly having issues, was very good about this). I get the concern for the international box office, but I feel like using the original languages would have felt more true to life.
Sisu is not an old-school World War II movie. It is bloody as hell and doesn’t apologize for that, and gets your blood pumping and your righteous anger flaring. Fans of more traditional war movies will be disappointed, but those with a more open mind will have a roaring good time like I did.
Highlights: period detail, also brutal violence
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10
POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.