Naked Finnish men in saunas speak straight from the heart and in the warmth of rusty stoves cleanse themselves both physically and mentally until the film’s deeply emotional and unforgettable finale. The film travels through Finland joining men of all walks of life in many different saunas, bringing us their touching stories about love, death, birth and friendship; about life. In all its simplicity, the camera records the raw and rare beauty of landscapes, saunas and men in almost magical images. The presence of the characters and the depth of their emotion reaches a limit where it is almost intolerable for the viewer to watch. Steam of Life reveals the men’s naked souls in an intimate and poetic way.
GREAT SORROW can often lead to tremendous ideas and artful invention. But to reach epiphany, one might have to reach deep down in oneself to find the opening that leads back into light—sometimes in silence, other times in the company of a few careful listeners.
In hindsight of his current creative accomplishments, it’s lucky for Finnish filmmaker Joonas Berghäll that six years ago he found himself one very sad man. His catharsis was found in one of his country’s oldest healing traditions. And it is through the emotional purging that surrounds this therapeutic ritual that he created a sincere cinematic love letter to the men of his homeland. In the documentary Steam of Life, Berghäll and his co-director Mika Hotakainen explore a peculiar male vulnerability that swarms the hot box of sixteen different saunas across Finland, where tears and heartbeats are conducive to the thwacking rhythm of vihta (a whisk of birch twigs) on taut skin and the stinging sizzle of water on coals, or löyly, as the Finnish call it.
Like an attentive ear in a sacred place of whispers, Berghäll and Hotakainen’s camera listens to stories that encompass the farthestreaching human emotions – from birth, estrangement, love and companionship, great loss and tragic death. In these confessionals – designed within the great architecture of caravans, teepees, cabins, rec-centres and even a phone booth – the true steam of life exhales a mystical ether, or truth serum, that arouses the musings of all types of nameless Finnish men. Generally speaking, Finnish men are not regarded as the most loquacious of people, yet something happens inside these safe houses. “When you are naked with other people, your souls are very close,” says Berghäll. “The men in our film are naked, but their souls are also naked. That’s the reason they really feel the sauna is the place they can be totally themselves.”
The idea of shy Finnish men confessing their barest emotions with not a stitch to cover themselves was, at first, a contradiction Berghäll had to get used to. Six years ago, when he was going through a massive bout of depression, Berghäll spent hours every Friday at a collective sauna in Tampere. Sooner than he expected, his sadness began to melt in the humidity of the recreation centre’s sauna. The support system of the sauna and its regulars seemed to cleanse the mind and rejuvenate the spirit far quicker than any therapist’s couch. Through all the sauna soul-talk, Berghäll recognized a certain dramaturgy that came not from action, but from the emotional turning points in every person’s life, the conflicts of the human soul.
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