The fundamental need of humans to talk — to express themselves and try to make sense of their inner lives — is abundantly on display in a remarkable film from Finland, Steam of Life, that goes deep into the inner sanctum of Finnish life, the sauna. Both women and men engage in this ubiquitous ritual, but Steam of Life focuses on Finnish men. It turns out that the cleansing that takes place in Finnish saunas is as much emotional as physical. Amid the steam, even ordinary men not known for their way with words — and the Finnish people are famously taciturn — create everyday poetry as they struggle to articulate their innermost feelings. Steam of Life both informs viewers about Finnish life and provides a memorable look into the troubled and often reticent heart of contemporary Western man.
The 12 men in Steam of Life open up with incredible candor about their families, children, marriages, divorces, love, loss, struggles and redemption. We hear from a soldier who served in Afghanistan as part of NATO forces and thinks of returning against his own best instincts and, in an unexpectedly hilarious moment, a man who rapturously describes his extraordinary best friend (who then makes his own boisterous appearance, which startled even the crew).
A phonebooth sauna as seen in Steam of Life. Credit: Oktober Oy.
Among the interesting things we learn from Steam of Life is that portable saunas can appear anywhere in Finland — in trailers, tepees, cars, even phone booths — at a moment’s notice. We also learn that Finnish men of all shapes, sizes and ages are not the least bit self-conscious about being nude, either in front of each other or in front of the filmmakers’ cameras (or behind the cameras — the crew was naked, too). We also learn that Finnish men, despite their reputation for not being communicative, are almost unstoppable once they get talking in their quiet way about their lives. They speak from a deep emotional need to share their experiences, and from a special place, the sauna, where they shed social inhibitions and distinctions along with their clothes.
Alternating images of the cold and majestic Finnish landscape and the warm and intimate sauna explain the place of the steam bath in Finnish life with no need for voiceover. In fact, Steam of Life unfolds solely through the images and the talk of the men themselves. The men speak slowly in the meditative Nordic cadence that the sauna seems to inspire, and they speak with striking candor. They also listen to each other with great patience; they allow silences that provide time for things to sink in, and they do not pretend the irresolvable can be resolved.
Ossi Lajunen and Osmo Salonen as seen in Steam of Life. Credit: Oktober Oy.
Making Steam of Life was a feat in itself. The crew used old 16mm film cameras in rooms that were 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Prior to filming, the cameras had to be warmed slowly to the sauna’s temperature. The resulting images have a richness and luminosity unique to the film medium.
There is a strong sense of loneliness among these men, but their stories are punctuated by moments of surprising humor and good feeling and given buoyancy by the belief that, as one of the men puts it, “knowing you are not alone is a relief.” However tragic some of the stories, they feel better for having shared them.