How Do You Solve a Problem Like Nazis?
It’s been said that entertainment in general, and American entertainment in particular, is too violent. For decades, there has been hand-wringing over the ever increasing cinematic bloodbaths taking place in theaters and televisions. “When, Lord!” they cried, “When will we return to a society that embraces love over hate, understanding over violence?”*
We say we want movies that are free of carnage. And yet, there’s one category of violence we can all rally around. One group that we’re totally cool with seeing get pummeled, beaten, stomped, and otherwise disrespected. I am, of course, talking about Nazis. Look…the vast majority of us don’t want harm to come to Christians, Jews, Muslims, LGBT folks, the young, the elderly, conservatives, or liberals.
And yet…one of my favorite things on the internet is a video. It’s a short video from January of 2017, and it shows an interview between the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and white nationalist Richard Spencer. During the interview, a man…nay, a hero, walks up to Spencer and just cracks him right in the jaw. There was hand-wringing over the attack, and well-meaning people claimed that violence towards anyone, no matter how loathsome they might be, is immoral.
I get that, and that’s a perfect example of Voltaire writing about the best of all possible worlds. Unfortunately, the world we live in is a country mile away from the best of all possible worlds, and in this world we have to deal with philosophical neanderthals like Spencer. Our popular entertainment should reflect our disdain for Nazis, and if nothing else, Sisu, the new Finnish action movie, makes the claim that violence toward Nazis is Good, Actually.
In 1944, the closing days of World War II, we’re introduced to a Finnish prospector. This is Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), an older man content to wander the Lapland wilderness with only a dog and a horse for company.** During the course of the film, we’ll learn two things about him. The first is that he’s completely comfortable with a solitary existence.
Aatami pans for gold in a creek. He finds a little, just enough that he suspects that more may be nearby. After a little investigation (and a lot of digging), he discovers an enormous gold seam. Enough to change a man’s life, though we don’t have a sense of what Aatami would like his life changed to.
However, we do have a sense of how that much gold could change the life of Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie). He’s the commander of an SS platoon, and he’s got a pretty good sense that his side is going to lose the war. Helldorf’s platoon is retreating, and he’s been ordered to destroy anything he comes across. That’s why destruction has been left in his wake, and that’s why they have taken a number of women captive. Helldorf enthusiastically complies with his orders, but he knows he and his men are facing execution by the victors. That is, unless something changes.
Something changes when Helldorf encounters Aatami coming from the opposite direction. He learns that Aatami has a massive amount of gold, which would buy escape and a comfortable post War life for himself and his men. He attempts to take the gold, and that’s when we learn the second thing about Aatami. The Finnish army nicknamed him Koschei – the immortal. The years have molded him into an instrument of unyielding violence, and now he’s aimed straight for the Nazis.
Director Jalmari Helander directed Sisu, and when I saw his previous film Big Game, I didn’t care for it. I wrote, “It’s not hardcore enough to be exciting, and it’s not ludicrous enough to be entertaining.” Did Helander heed my words with Sisu? Perhaps! He’s made a tight 91-minute feature where his hero annihilates the living hell out of the Nazis. After a brief opening sequence showing us Aatami’s prospecting life, we swing into nearly nonstop carnage. There are fistfights, stabbings, gunfights, strangulations, bombings, homicide by tank, and a tense vignette involving a minefield. Helander filmed in the unforgiving Lapland region, and he effectively uses the landscape to enhance the desolation. Once the bloodletting kicks in, his pacing is relentless. It’s pretty cool from an action standpoint, but at the end of the day, action is all there really is.
An opening title card tells us of the Finnish concept of Sisu, and says there is no direct translation. There kind of is, and I get that as the screenwriter, Helander is going for something that valorizes the Finns and acts as their equivalent of First Blood. I’m cool with that, yet the problem is that the character of Aatami is completely one-note. He begins the film as a grizzled badass and ends it exactly the same way. We see him dealing with hardships involving both the Nazis and the remote wilderness, but Helander never lets us inside Aatami’s head. However, let’s compare it to First Blood. In that film, we’ve got John Rambo as a Vietnam vet grappling with a) PTSD, b) a country that’s hostile to him, and c) the fact that his old Army buddies are dying. All he wants is a support system, a place to belong, and failing that, to be left alone. When the conflict kicks in, that characterization of Rambo makes us give a damn about his journey. The script for Sisu never tells us anything about Aatami other than his life as a killing machine.
As a result, all Jorma Tommila really has to work with to get into the character of Aatami is the physicality of the role. He does a great job in embodying the concept of Sisu as he absorbs a bewildering amount of punishment. Tommila has a weary charisma, and I could imagine him repeatedly saying*** to the Nazis, “All right, fine, let’s get this over with.” He’s got a decent adversary with Aksel Hennie as the wicked Helldorf. Beyond being irredeemably evil, Helldorf is exhausted. Hennie plays him as a man who’s been ground down to almost nothing by the war, and the gold is his best chance of escape. What would Helldorf do with himself if he made it out? Probably drink himself to death, and Hennie sells the weary nihilism just as well as he sells the sadism.
At the end of the day, Sisu isn’t much more than a collection of well-made action scenes strung together. The bad news is that we’re left with a somewhat hollow genre exercise, one filled with blood but no heart. The good news is at least we get to see a skilled operator kill the living shit out of a bunch of Nazis, which is always entertaining.
*Say what you will about the Bible, but it’s one of the most violent pieces of literature I’ve ever read, and I’ve read the whole thing. It’s almost as if violence is only important when viewed in context.
**Necessary spoiler alert – the dog is fine.
***Beyond grunts, growls, and screaming, Tommila has two lines of dialogue in the entire film.