Steam of Life
Beautiful but bleak documentary about Finnish sauna culture
(E) 81 min
There are five million people in Finland, and an estimated two million saunas – roughly one per household. They form an integral part of Finnish culture: women are encouraged to give birth in them, while men use the steamy rooms both as social venues and confessional spaces where they can strip off their worldly responsibilities along with their clothes and sweat out their psychological burdens. From the stories on offer in Steam of Life, we can conclude either that Finland is one of the most depressing places on Earth, or that directors Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen purposefully populated their film with the saddest souls in the Nordic region.
Tale after tale of childhood abuse, dead spouses, prison terms, miscarriages, industrial accidents and divorce are all laid bare, with the subjects’ initial awkwardness in the camera’s presence giving way to outpourings of grief. The bleakness of tone is compounded by cinematographers Heikki Färm and Jani Kumpulainen, who intersperse the soul-baring sessions with lengthy static shots of the cold, desolate wilderness that surrounds the speakers on all sides. These scenes are beautifully melancholic but utterly comfortless, as is the lonely piano score by Jonas Bohlin that accompanies them.
The film isn’t a complete downer – one man talks of his favourite sweat-box companion, who is then revealed to be a playful grizzly bear; another improvises a sauna inside a telephone box. However, these scenes are passed over quickly; for the most part, the audience has to soak up the sadness that flows abundantly from the pores of the protagonists. As a site-specific sauna screening, the film might be a success, but without a similar method of cathartic release for those watching, it’s a little too much to bear.
Steam of Life is showing as part of Edindocs at Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh, at 2.20pm on Sun 18 Sep.