.Killer of Nazis

Grizzled Finnish freedom fighter repels invaders in wild WWII actioner ‘Sisu’

Anti-Nazi war movies don’t necessarily need to be very complicated. That is, it’s probably enough that a narrative feature takes a position against Nazi and/or fascist politics and ideology, in order for the film to score points, however arguable, on the socially responsible arts and entertainment scale. 

Thus, a modest World War II actioner like the straight-faced Burial (2022), with its seemingly apocryphal dramatized account of the postwar search for Adolf Hitler’s body, is more or less as consequential as Quentin Tarantino’s over-the-top anti-fascist fantasy, Inglourious Basterds (2009). 

When it comes to celebrating the campaign against racial hatred, wars of territorial aggression and crimes against humanity, arguments about a movie’s production values, screenplay and other artistic attributes take second place to zeroing in on the real-world meaning of the struggle. Nazism/fascism is an affront to the human race, and sometimes that’s the only basic yardstick that counts.

With that in mind, it might be fun to pick apart a feature like Jalmari Helander’s Finnish production, Sisu, just to see what makes it tick. 

Aatami Korpi (played by character actor Jorma Tommila) is a prospector digging for gold in lonely Northern Finland in the waning days of World War II. Why the 60ish Korpi decided to undertake his solo quest in a terrain that has been recently attacked in rapid succession by both the Soviet army and Hitler’s rampaging forces is not discussed. 

Let’s just say that Korpi, a taciturn, rugged, grizzled—though not half so grizzled as he soon will be—outdoorsman with a strong streak of willfulness, is not the type to be easily dissuaded from his task. The film is presented here in English, with only the Finnish dialogue in its original language. The term sisu freely translates as fierce determination.

Korpi finds a rich vein of gold and soon loads his saddlebags with a fortune in nuggets. But on the trail back, our hero comes into contact with a detachment of German SS troops and their tank, on their way home after being run out of the USSR. SS divisions were notorious for their fighting skills as well as for their fanatical devotion to the barbaric social and political theories of Nazi Germany—when SS officer Helldorf (Aksel Hennie) and his men spot Korpi, their first response is to mock him. 

But wait, let’s see what this subhuman has in his luggage. Korpi takes issue, and writer-director Jalmari Helander’s Sisu immediately kicks into gear as a concise, lean, brutal and inventive revenge actioner, with layers of mayhem atop a relatively simple proposition: This man is never going to let the Nazis take anything away from him. Never. 

The non-stop gory violence reaches cartoonish levels, even though it’s outweighed in the atrocity department by the presence of a truckload of female Finnish captives—obviously rape victims—being carted back to the Third Reich as sex slaves by the SS troops. Somewhere in the late rounds, our man Korpi has been reduced to a hunk of throbbing gristle (apologies to Genesis P-Orridge’s avant-garde music ensemble). But as the saying goes, one should see the other guys. At one point, Korpi field-dresses a bloody bullet wound by rubbing it with gooey black mud. Let’s see Gerard Butler or Liam Neeson try that. 

On-screen echoes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (not to mention Mad Max Fury Road) make it clear that Finnish he-man Korpi is doing the world a favor by ridding it of so many Nazis. Helander’s Veg-O-Matic war movie, with its impossible stunts and Korpi’s haunted dreams of combat desolation, has an appropriate pedigree. In 2010, Helander and actor Tommila joined forces for Rare Exports, surely one of the most bizarre of Christmas-flick take-offs, in which Santa Claus is discovered buried underneath a Finnish mountain, only to be resuscitated in a war between humans and elves. If only real-life Nazis were as easily disposed of. But they always will be.

In theaters

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