The word “sisu” is nearly untranslatable, but its closest meaning suggests an unbreakable determination, one that seems to even stave off death. Determination is exactly what Korpi will need when, on his way home with his fortune of nuggets hanging on his horse’s saddlebag, he comes across a band of sullen Nazis. The Nazis are hauling a kind of “treasure” (though these captives are not treated as such), a cadre of Finnish women. Despite his best efforts, the soldiers discover his loot, setting off a fight for the mined prize.
It would be easy to watch writer/director Jalmari Helander’s viciously bloody flick for its exploitation cinema, spaghetti Western, and 1980s action roots, which owes its riches to Sergio Leone’s films and “Rambo: First Blood,” respectively. The man of few words character that Tommila portrays is certainly cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name. Similar to Rambo, he also carries an unlikely resume: Korpi is a former special forces soldier so prolific in his murdering of Russians during the Winter War (he purportedly has killed 300 of them to avenge the murder of his wife and daughter) that they consider him an unbeatable ghost. That information, however, isn’t enough to determine the German company’s savage commander Bruno (Aksel Hennie). With the war nearing its end and the specter of war crimes looming large, Bruno sees the gold as his ticket out of future punishment. In their struggle, the film piles bodies as high as a Rambo death count. But “Sisu” is more than its enjoyable carnage.
Conventionally, prospectors have been symbolic harbingers of colonization and land theft. They arrive to siphon the vital resources of an area belonging to a local indigenous population. In America, gold rushes have been an extension of manifest destiny. But Helander subtly shifts such historical expectations.
It’s telling, for instance, how Helander and cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos captures the grim Finnish landscape: a desolate hellscape ravaged by craters, villages burned asunder, composed of bodies hanging from telephone poles. The country’s entire infrastructure, from the ground to its forms of communication, has been broken by bullets, bombs, and landmines. When Korpi breaks the tranquil ground around the stream to open the film, digging holes that look like craters, he isn’t doing so to smash its physical definition. He is a local man who can be interpreted as taking up the gold to protect one of his country’s few remaining resources. The Nazis are, of course, rendered as the colonizers, attempting to steal the lone treasure they haven’t destroyed in this country. It’s a thrilling subversion of the historical image of the prospector to deploy a deeply nationalistic message.