Friday, January 12, 2024

Confabulation War


Written and directed by Jalmari Helander

Spoilers: moderate

The war guilt of the Axis powers (a formally inaccurate, but useful name) has been, over the decades, processed by each co-belligerent in their own popular culture in their own ways: German movies about the war, to the extent they're even allowed, are all about misery and shame, reflecting the remorseful acceptance of Germany's status as the unique villain of history; Italian movies would for many years rail against the legacy of fascism, never actually expurgated from their society; and Japanese movies like to put forth the thesis that the central tragedy of their part of the war was the conventional and atomic bombing campaign that led to the collapse of the Japanese Empire, which might have been involved in some unpleasantness elsewhere, though most Japanese movies aren't very sure.  That exhausts the list of Axis powers that the average person can name, though my expectation is that the general attitude in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria is that they were to some degree or another coerced into the war and its associated horrors by big bully Germany, and to some degree or another, that's probably true.  And then there's Finland.

How Finland processes its war guilt, I can't say, though I think one would be forgiven if one were unable to perceive that they have war guilt.  On the contrary, they appear to have war pride, particularly as regards the most famous phase of their participation in the patchwork of conflicts called "World War II," the 1939-1940 Winter War with the Soviet Union, which Finland lost, but gloriously.  The Finns' subsequent alignment with Germany wasn't made, of course, in contemplation of how it might tarnish their heroic reputation eighty years down the line, and so when Germany invaded the Finns' adversary in 1941, Finland did so too.  They lost again, not so gloriously this time, with this "Continuation War" being less defined by the Winter War's badass ski troops and invisible snipers than by Finland's role in the starvation of Leningrad, which I've learned some Finns would prefer you didn't mention.  If the one Finnish-American I've ever known is typical, anyway, discussions of the Continuation Warhey, he brought it upget really defensive, really quickly, in ways that in retrospect suggest that something must've been eating the guy.

Now Jalmari Helander arrives with a whole new approach, which is to just pretend that Finland was a Nazi-occupied country.  I regret the preceding historical infodump, but Helander's movie, Sisu, is only by the narrowest margin less brazen than the marketing for his movie in its exploitation of your presumed ignorance of the 20th century, so obfuscatory that for half the trailer, I was trying to figure out what part of the Soviet Union or Poland it was set in.  The film itself, at least, opens with a very brief narration explaining that the Moscow Armistice has obliged Finland "to disarm the Nazis in Lapland," which is correct though its words are carefully chosen to not explain, to the ordinary dumbfuck layperson, that until yesterday the Nazis in Lapland were Finland's welcome guests.  (Okay, technically, the film opens with the word "sisu," declaring it to be an untranslatable concept before immediately translating it; it means "determination," "stubbornness," etc., and I'd love for you to tell me how "implacability" is not an exact translation.)

Thus does Sisu provide a new Finnish myth for the Lapland War, to supersede that of the Winter War, about how an individualistic heroic Finn achieved about 3% of the Lapland War's KIAs all by himself and routed his country's Nazi invaders, who had sexually enslaved Finland's women, had strung up the corpses of Finland's legendary, world-renowned anti-Nazi resistance fighters along the roadside, and had also committed some other war crimes that are significantly less lurid but, to their credit, not fictional, nor as copy-and-pasted from what Nazis did to countries that weren't their friends and partners in genocide.*  Now, I'm rolling here, but I'm still assuming more "good faith"or maybe let's call it "artistic integrity"than I think is actually the case for Sisu.  That would assume Helander made his movie on behalf of Finland.  If that were the case, however, I suspect this Finnish movie wouldn't have every one of its Finnish actors communicating in English-standing-in-for-apparently-German (there's eventually about eight or nine lines of Finnish at the end).  I'll cut it some slack on thatsmall country, world languagebut if it were for Finland, it probably wouldn't be quite so keen to put the Continuation War in a box and chuck it into the deep blue sea.  It would probably also not be such a shameless hybrid of Tarantino knock-off and John Wick bandwagoner (down to its hero's folkloric-sounding Russian-language epithet, Koshchei, standing at most only ten feet away from "Baba Yaga"), which is how you know it was gunning specifically for an American audience, in the hopes that the resurgence of fascism in America entailed a resurgence in interest in movies about laying waste to cartoon Nazis, which turned out to be justified enough for Sisu to be a memetic success, so that I spent an unproductive hour on Letterboxd this summer looking to see if even one of you dolts knew which side Finland was on.  And that is probably the underlying aggravation I have about Sisu: in a world where the most de minimis infraction can occasion a disproportionate wokescold response, somehow a movie about revising history to pretend a country that fought alongside Nazi Germany was one of its victims flies completely under the radar; in other words, Helander thinks we're idiots, and it always hurts worse when an insult is accurate.

But here's the thing: this has been nothing but me indulging in being pedantic and tedious.  I think it's important to discuss who uses history and why, but what truly sticks in my craw is this: Helander told you he was makin' a movie about killin' Natzis, he delivered the absolute bare minimum version of Natzi-killin', and because politics, that you don't even understand, are it for you, this was found to not be merely satisfactory as action cinema, but praiseworthy.  And that would be difficult to abide even if his movie's absolute bare minimum version of Natzi-killin' wasn't in service to mythologizing the absolute bare minimum version of Natzi-killin' undertaken by the Finns in real life basically only because the Soviets made them.

Well, then: in late 1944, in the wilderness of Lapland, exists a man, whom we will learn, much later, is named Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila).  He was once the terror of the Northwestern and possibly the Karelian Fronts of the Red Army, though they're pretty unclear on whether he fought in the Continuation War, and perhaps he did not, for he was always a rogue agent, operating entirely outside of the control of the Finnish Army, driven half to vengeful madness by the loss of his family to the Russians (presumably by air attack, as otherwise I don't really see how).  Yet in the years since he's retired to Lapland in solitudeaccompanied by a cute dog, which the marketing actually spelled out won't die, because this isn't like John Wick, where would you get that idea?and he has dedicated himself to small-scale mineral prospecting.  On this day, he finds a rich vein of gold, and, rather than covering it right back up and waiting the days or possibly weeks it'll take for the remnants of the Germans' 20th Mountain Army to exit the area, because this would wreck the contrivances it takes to put Korpi on his anti-Nazi warpath, he determines to get that gold back to Rovaniemi right now.  Accordingly, he runs smack into German stragglers.  The first group is a small column of Waffen-SS troops slinking out of Lapland under the command of Lt. Bruno Helldorf, trafficking a half-dozen female sex captives (principally Mimosa Willamo) and centered around what we're invited to suppose must be one of the last working panzers in Finland (a T-54, which I found incredibly distracting, but I still appreciate the use of a practical tank**).  Helldorf's band initially ignores Korpi, but the Finn runs into a German roadblock barely a mile hence, and they hassle him.  This is a mistake, since he kills them all, but Helldorf hears the commotion and turns his column around, and when he discovers that Korpi is carrying satchelfulls of gold, he seizes upon the idea of taking it for himself.  But Korpi is no ordinary opponent, and even when the Nazis kill Korpi, Korpi, as was prophesied, refuses to die.

In substance, this isn't even a WWII movie, it's an action-oriented Western dressed in WWII costumes and powered by Finnish nationalism, and a movie like this is only going to be as good as the two or three things you need an action Western to do well by: its landscapes; its characters; and, as implied, its action.  Sisu gets halfway there, which doesn't seem very mathematically clean, but I think I'll stick by it.  What it has in spades, for I can in fact say nice things about this movie, is landscapes; it was filmed, naturally enough, in Lapland, principally in the countrysides of Utsjoki and Inari, and at the "correct" time of year to represent the Lapland War (fall) though you could make a powerful argument that accuracy would not have been worthwhile if the Lapland War had taken place in spring instead, for this is absolutely beautiful in its untamed Arctic bleakness, lichenous greens and rocky grays splotched with autumnal golds (and as the film goes on we reach "wintry" as well).  Whatever other grudges I have against the picture, they do not include Helander and cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos's treatment of this landscape, or of their establishing shots generally, which manage some lovely and diligent photography that uses the sun and the skies and the gently rolling plains and the trees and the dust kicked up by a T-54 or the smoke belched out by a landmine explosion in some pretty creative and aesthetically-pleasing ways, frequently with a low-lying camera intended to make its figures tower up bigger-than-life, and within a digital treatment that imposes a moody, doomy haze on this imagery that is probably the one thing (outside of the costume design, anyway) that most brings Sisu in line with the notion that this is a movie is about the apocalyptic end of World War II in Europe.  I will, however, bitch loudly about the ugly post-production slow motion that Helander often inflicts upon the accomplishments of Lagerroos's photography, constituting a pretty major fraction of this 91 minute movie's runtime.

This represents us running out of particularly nice things to say, though I suppose I'll note the gloopiness of some of the bodily destruction can be well-rendered, albeit mostly in isolationthere are a couple of Nazis run over by their own tank that are disgustingly splendid pieces of work, and a self-surgery scene that's also quite nice.  But "overdoing slow motion" somewhat pins down what we're dealing with, which is try-hard and striving and not indicative of any innate talent at staging action-based thrills, and also something very comfortable aping other filmmakers who do have that talent.  It's not the worst thing about the movie, but what might be the most just-plain-irritating is the announcement of onscreen "chapters" in what's a practically real-time story that takes place largely on a single stretch of rural Finland, and involves a screenplay that may have had more "chapters" than pages.  It even goes for Tarantino in the design of its text, with backlit fuzziness that says, "I have seen Quentin Tarantino's evocation of war movies, though I've obviously never actually seen so much as Where Eagles Dare for myself, because then I'd have realized I wasn't even exploiting the violent possibilities of a pickaxe to their greatest effect."

That gets us right to "action," and while "characters" are where Sisu gets a half point instead of nothing, "characters" and "action" are so inseparable in their failures here that it's probably just best to treat them together.  Of course, it isn't any kind of sin for an action movie's action and characterization to be nearly coterminous, so Sisu isn't doing anything too wrong on that count, and I would go so far as to say that the hardbitten performances of its two leads, Tommilla and Henie, are some of the best assets Helander had at his disposal, between the two of them almost dragging this nonsense into a tale of survival, greed, and fundamental amorality that would've fit the spaghetti Western war movie Helander wants it to look like.  (The terseness is probably the biggest way it legitimately resembles the Wick films.)

The movie Helander made, though, is basically a series of responses to the prompt "so what stupid-as-fuck thing that we won't bother trying to massage into any kind of intellectual or even emotional plausibility should we do next?"  There's been violence beforehand, but the first major sequence that pits Korpi against Helldorf really sums up what the movie will be like going forward: it starts out well enough, with the tactical complication of a minefield between Korpi and the Nazis (why, even bringing into play something bad the Germans actually did to Finland, their mines managing to occasionally kill unlucky Laplanders well into the next decade); and long story short, it climaxes with Korpi having somehow figured out how to throw one of these landmines at a Nazi pursuer.  Now, it's not completely opaque: he dug it out of the ground with his mining pan.  I will leave aside that I cannot for a second believe this is how landmines work, and I've certainly never seen another movie hero attempt digging a landmine up in four inches of earth with a plate and throwing it away.  Counterfactuality is not the core issue, really; it's that the shot-to-shot action storytelling does not even give me a chance to believe it, to identify with Korpi's resourcefulness, or to get us to a place where this was now, simultaneously, the surprising and inevitable outcome of the scene.  Maybe more than anything else I've mentioned, Sisu owes its biggest debt to Spielberg's masterpieces of cartoon Nazi-killing, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusadeand I desperately wish its debt were even bigger.

The best work it ever manages is openly ripping off the chase from Raidersshould I be clearer, and say "the second time it rips off the chase from Raiders?"featuring a bit of tank action from Last Crusade, except it's completely B-movie in ability to render spectacle, and even more disappointingly it feels so utterly linear, both in terms of its physical geography (it is on a road, though that didn't stop Spielberg), and narrative complexity.  That's ultimately what makes Sisu pointless beyond a gore shock here, or a neat idea about a tank gun barrel poking into the women's truck thereonce you crack its "what would be stupid and break any sense of immersion" story engine, it doesn't have that many surprises anymore, and the ones it does have are bad (once it arrives at the "plane" part of its Raiders template, it truly does feel like the mission was "make it completely moronic, then also have a climactic fistfight that's been edited to be as slow and tiresome as possible, then have something happen that's so moronic that you can't believe it, like you literally can't believe that Helander thinks his movie would be cooler if his hero didn't even bother trying to level out the plane").  It gets where it needs to go by virtue of having some extraordinarily bad villainy, in the sense of its villains being very bad at it; its hyper-cruel Germans more-or-less deliberately fail to kill Korpi a few times to keep the movie from ending prematurely (it even has access to a semi-credible reason for them to take Korpi alive"he knows where the gold is"that it never actually seems aware it could have used), and of course they are all expert marksmen when they sociopathically gun down their own, while remaining steadfastly unable to shoot in Korpi's general direction when they fire at him.  And Korpi is too good at it, just this entirely frictionless object that no stakes can ever attach to, for whom, even if Helander could've afforded more extras, the whole damn 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division could not have posed a greater threat. Which is like if you had an Indiana Jones movie described to you secondhand by someone who did not understand Indiana Jones movies.

I mean, he often gets "hurt," in some notional way.  He gets wounded.  He even gets captured.  I said, in the plot summary, he gets killed, and I wasn't joking.  He gets killed.  He gets killed three times.  Helander has placed at the core of his movie a guy for whom getting shot or stabbed can't actually matter, because he could lose all his blood, and that wouldn't matterfor he has clearly established that his hero does not even need to breathe in the first place.  And it's boring.  This movie about Nazis getting blown up is fucking boring.

Score: 5/10

*One thing the movie gets right is the Germans' scorched earth tactics on their withdrawal.  Look up "German war crimes Lapland War" and you can find out how many houses they tore down, and that this could possibly be the emphasis kind of tells you what you need to know about the Lapland War and its context within World War II.
**Cf. the DC-3 we get later on, which is then mostly or entirely CGI anyway.  The hell?  Did they not have an off-the-shelf Ju 52 model at the VFX store or what?

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