Interview: Filmmaker Jalmari Helander on Bringing Sisu to the Screen, the Influence of Sergio Leone and “The More, The Better”

With his latest feature, Sisu, Finnish-born writer-director Jalmari Helander finally got to shoot Finland for Finland, having shot Norway for Finland in his 2010 breakthrough film, the demented Christmas-themed Rare Exports, and entirely in German for his less-successful second work Big Game four years later. But with Sisu, shooting in his homeland was especially important for this story of an ex-soldier at the end of World War II who discovers gold in the Lapland wilderness and tries to take the loot into the city. On his solo journey through the roughest of terrain and weather, Nazi soldiers led by a brutal SS officer battle him for the treasure as the Germans are fleeing, slashing and burning everything in their path back to the fatherland.

As is explained in the film’s opening titles, the word “Sisu” is uniquely Finish and has no direct English translation. It has a mystical meaning that describes a level of will power, determination, white-knuckled courage, perseverance, and rational behavior in the face of extreme adversity. And in his quest to make this film, Helander wanted to embody all of that in a single character called Aatami Korpi (regular collaborator Jorma Tommila), who is known among the locals as The Immortal, not because he can’t be killed but because he simply refuses to die. We see examples of this throughout the action-packed, particularly brutal movie.

I had the chance to chat with Helander recently via Zoom, and in the background of the room where he was sitting, there were posters of the original Rambo movie, First Blood, and the aforementioned Rare Exports, both of which perfectly summarize Sisu—uniquely Finnish but embraced a certain type of historical fiction and action adventure. Enjoy our conversation…

First of all, I need to tell you that Rare Exports gets regular rotation in my home every Christmas, so thank you for that.

Thank you.

If your films have anything in common, they aren’t afraid to blend mythology and historical fiction. Where did the seed of this particular story, which is rooted in reality but is not a true story, come from?

It’s a mixture of all kinds of things, of course. Like in Rare Exports, I need to have something from Finland that I can explain to other countries, and this time it’s Sisu. I have had the idea for many years to tell the story of the gold rush in Lapland, but when I had the idea of Nazis when they left Finland and burned everything to the ground, I wondered what would happen if I combined these two stories. And like a minute after I thought that, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

You’ve made a movie that is meant to be the living definition of a word that is not easily translatable. How do even start the process of how to visualize a word?

It’s a cool thing, Sisu, because it’s almost like a superpower, if you put that mindset into an action film. But it was also cool to me that it’s not a superpower. Like we say in the movie, “He’s not immortal; he just refuses to die.” That really gave me the freedom to handle the main character and what he can pull off. I think it was really fun to take this approach.

This feels like a very personal film for you because you get to shoot Finland for Finland, but it’s also about the endurance and innate toughness of the Finnish people. Was that significant for you to get that point across?

Definitely. It was really cool to actually shoot in Finland. I have to blame Cliffhanger for wanting to shoot Big Game in the Alps in Germany. It doesn’t look like Finland at all. Maybe it would have been a better movie if I’d made that in Finland, but I wanted those mountains. But it’s really cool to make a genuine Finnish action film because that’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid, and it’s been impossible until now. I’m at the point in my career where I can actually do this now, because everybody was laughing at me when I was 25 and trying to explain that I was going to do something like this. And they’re like “Yeah, right.”

The kills in this are spectacular and so unique. Is that one of the most fun parts of making this, just coming up with ways that we haven’t seen for people to die? And it all looks practical, even if it isn’t.

Well that’s a good thing. It was really hard to have these ideas, and I had to think about it a lot. It wasn’t fun thinking about it, but it was fun when the idea finally came, and it always comes in a different place than here in my office. It comes when I’m doing something else. “How will he survive underwater? Oh, I know.” That’s a really cool moment. We didn’t have a $100 million budget to make this, so I had to be inventive to be able to surprise the audience and keep them entertained. I had to come up with something different.

You have extreme weather, it’s very muddy, there are dogs and horses, there are old vehicles. I’m wondering, what was the first thing to break down or cause the biggest headaches? And how did you roll with it?

We were prepared to have a lot of problems with the cars and the tank and the motorcycles, but we didn’t have problems like that at all. We did have a problem with the horse. It was my worst nightmare some days. One day, the horse just ran away, and we found it 11 kilometers away, deep in the wilderness. And all the props on the horse fell off everywhere. And of course the dog and the horse didn’t want to be in the same shot, so we had to be quite clever with that also.

Your actor Jorma, whom you’ve worked with before and is actually your brother-in-law now, he has almost no dialogue in this film. That must require a tremendous amount of trust on your part, that he will be able to emote without getting to use the actor’s greatest tool, his voice. Tell me about the nature of your relationship now after working with him for so long.

Basically, the result of our relationship and working together so long is Sisu. He knows exactly what I’m doing, and I know what he’s doing, so we don’t have to talk about it that much. In the beginning, when I told him Sisu, he knew exactly that he could pull it off. Of course, he’s an old man now, and he had doubts about whether he could physically do this because it wasn’t easy. I can tell you that. What the days were like for Jorma, everyday he’s doing something really hard. But it was so cool to decide not to use dialogue. I’m going to go further with that idea in my next movie, maybe, because it really forces you to think in a cinematic way how to explain things and not to explain everything with boring dialogue.

I really liked how you dealt with the female characters in this. When we’re introduced to them in the beginning, we think they are just going to be characters who are going to be in need of rescue, and they turn into so much more than that. Talk about how you handled that and turning them into part of his private army.

Yeah, it really seems, when I’m at a screening of the film, when the women get their revenge, people cheer a lot. It works really well. There’s something cool about it.

Whenever people dabble in historical fiction, they always get compared to some of the stuff Tarantino has been doing lately. Was he an influence on you in any way, even if it was just making you feel it was okay to take this approach?

That’s what I’ve been saying for a while. It’s a bit unfair to be compared to Tarantino if you are mimicking the same films as he does. When people think you are copying Tarantino, you are really just copying the same films he does. To be honest, of course, it's really impossible to say how much of that comes from him, but I think I’m copying films like First Blood and Sergio Leone’s westerns. It’s impossible to say exactly where that tone and ideas came from.

With such extreme action sequences like this, when you’re writing this, do you ever think maybe you needed to dial things back a little bit because it’s so big and explosive? Or was the rule of the day “The more, the better”?

That was my rule. In my previous films, there were moments where I had a big idea of doing something like an action set piece, and if I think of a bigger action scene later, I’m just going to move it later in the movie. But I made a rule that I wouldn’t do this when I’m making this film. I always have to top the last idea I had to be able to pull this off.

You clearly have a gift for it, so I hope you keep making these types of movies.

I will.

Thank you so much. It was great to finally talk to you. Best of luck with this.

Thank you so much. Bye.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.