Nazi hunting movies have been in cinema dating back to the propaganda era during WWII. Let’s be honest; a person or a team of ragtag heroes or anti-heroes on a mission to destroy The Third Reich never gets old and probably never will. Many films in this genre have examined the subject through the lens of comedy, drama, horror, or straight action. The latter is where Jalmari Helander‘s Sisu comes in.
The 2023 film features a Finnish war veteran who is spending his twilight years searching for gold. Aatami, played by Jorma Tommila, discovers a large deposit, but when his path crosses a platoon of Nazis, the movie really takes off. Sisu teethers the line between grindhouse and pure action, and Helander’s writing and directing are just what this story needs. We got to speak with the director about his techniques and writing process that makes Sisu such a damn good movie.
I checked out Sisu last night. I absolutely love it.
Jalmari Helander: Thanks.
Is Sisu based on any story lore, a real character, or anything?
Jalmari Helander: It’s purely fiction and fantasy. I wish there would be a war hero like that in Finland. Of course, there’s been really badass guys during World War II. But, basically, Aatami is a product of fantasy.
I know, for example, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is somewhat based in reality. So the style of the Sisuis like a spaghetti western mix and other types of genres. What was your influence as a director for Sisu?
Jalmari Helander: It wasn’t clear from the beginning that it would be that much like a Western-looking film, but it became really clear when he had a horse, and it’s when you see the location. I understood really quickly that, “Okay, this is gonna be some kind of Western in a way.” I really love that kind of old-school filmmaking and having really wide shots of a few sceneries. On some occasions, you go really close to the eyes, and you take your time using the shots.
Besides the music and the wide shots, things like the chapter fonts exist. They’re in the style of spaghetti westerns. Since you mentioned close-up shots of Jorma Tommila, how much training did he have to go through for the fight-choreographed scenes?
Jalmari Helander: Well, that wasn’t so much a big deal with training and with the fight sequences. They are pretty short in a way and done in small pieces. So it wasn’t that hard. I think the biggest challenge for Jorma was he really wanted to build his body, arms, and hands to look like a man using his hands for everyday work – moving stones and stuff like that. So that was what he was practicing and doing.
The action for Sisu gets pretty gory and violent. Is there anything you had to cut or pull back to get more accepted by the rating system?
Jalmari Helander: Definitely not. It was really clear from the beginning that this would be, if you read the script, you understand what you’re gonna get. If you try to make it less wild, it’s not that film anymore. So I needed that freedom to do what the f**k I wanted, and that’s what makes it cool, in my opinion.
Yeah, killing Nazis never gets old. They’re automatically the bad guy, and I really dug the creative kills. So going back to the question regarding cutting out anything too violent, was everything you wanted to be included in the film?
Jalmari Helander: I actually made the first act a little bit shorter than it was. I wanted to do exactly a one-and-a-half hour film because I like those kinds of films. I don’t want to be in a movie theater for three hours. I think you can tell a story in one and a half hours.
Jalmari Helander: I think it’s more fun to watch something like that.
Plus, if it’s a tight script and tight run time, we’re getting to this point and point. So, it’s like, “Let’s Keep the adrenaline pumping and the white knuckling going.”
Jalmari Helander: Definitely.
Aatami doesn’t speak until the movie’s last 30-50 seconds. Was that a creative decision at the beginning of the scriptwriting process?
Jalmari Helander: I had a few lines in the first act like him saying something to the dog or the horse. But it was clear when we started shooting that I wasn’t gonna use the lines because it’s so much cooler that he just speaks in the end. What I liked about writing this film was forcing myself to think about how to tell the story just with pictures—not having to explain it in a dialogue which automatically creates a better movie. It’s a movie, not an audiobook.
Sisu reminds me of this movie called The Great Silence. The hero is mute, but he’s a badass character like Aatami. That’s where I see some of the similarities. So Aino, played by Mimosa Willamo, and the other prisoners started as victims and survivors, becoming these Nazi hunters. Is there a plan for a spinoff with those characters? I would, honestly, love to see them get their movie.
Jalmari Helander: I never thought about it, and you’re the first to say it, but that’s a good idea. *Laughs* That might turn out to be something weird.
*Laugh* Just make sure to gimme story credit on that.
Jalmari Helander: I will.
Sisu is now in theaters.