Interview: “Sisu” Director Jalmari Helander

I was lucky enough to talk with director Jalmari Helander in anticipation of the release of his World War II action film Sisu. The director talks about juggling tone, the lack of sympathetic Nazis, the devotion of lead actor Jorma Tommila, and working within the limits of a budget.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ben Miller: Congratulations on the film. It’s quite an achievement in and of itself. The film has the feeling of darkness and the reality of what is happening at the end of World War II, but there’s also a level of excitement with it. Where did you try to strike that level of balance?

Jalmari Helander: It’s really difficult for me to explain how the tone was built. If I were trying to do that in a way, it would be impossible. But, it’s just something I do, like naturally. It’s a serious kind of place and time to tell that kind of story, and also I wanted to have fun with the action. I know it’s a bit weird combo, but I think it works quite well.

BM: In films that deal with Nazis and Nazi Germany, I always come at it from an American perspective. The Finnish perspective of Nazis and the occupation was a totally different one. But, they aren’t bafoonish idiots. They are cruel people who you don’t feel bad about killing. Did you ever wrestle with any of these characters having any redeemable aspects?

JH: We decided with [actor] Askel Hennie that we weren’t going to make this complicated. Because this is a simple story. I thought it would be cool just to have Nazis…it’s the end of the war and they’ve already gone through so many bad things during those years. They know that they have basically lost and nothing is important anymore. There are no rules. They can do what the f*** they want. I think it’s really scary to deal with people who don’t care anymore. They can do whatever and you can’t imagine how far they are willing to go. Being in that kind of place where nothing matters anymore. The same thing goes for [lead character] Aatami. He’s lost everything. It felt good to just keep it simple.

BM: I like the general idea of the title of the film. I know the film explains it is untranslatable, but where does that term come from? Explain for the dumb Americans the idea of Sisu

JH: It’s the mindset of “never give up” when you are facing the biggest challenges, you’ll find the biggest forces inside you. It’s not based on any one thing, it’s a real big thing in Finland. I think it’s also used as propaganda during wars in Finland. We have so much sisu that we can’t lose. It’s a really old concept of having this kind of relentlessness. It’s not one thing and it’s a big thing throughout history.

BM: You have worked with Jorma Tomilla many times in the past. It seems like his casting and his characterization…without his performance and his physicality behind it, this movie doesn’t really go. Talk about incredible he is in this film and how much dedication he puts behind it

JH: Well he puts everything behind and he was the first person I called when I had the idea for this movie. I knew he was the only guy who I definitely knew could pull this off. It’s not easy for an actor to work without dialogue and still carry the whole movie on your shoulders. Jorma is like a force of nature like how determined he was and how much he put himself into this thing and he never complained and he had to go through really difficult days of being Aatami. If you think about small things that happens to his face, or fighting the cold rain…how well he performs without saying anything…it’s not an easy thing to do.

BM: And it’s not just the action of it. What he says without saying anything is exceptional.

JH: It’s amazing how much he can deliver with just his eyes or how he moves. Everything. I have to tell you…the biggest work…we had to all this ADR (automated dialogue replacement) because it was so windy…the biggest ADR day was the day we did Aatami. Because we needed every single breath he is making to sound exactly like it should. What was cool about it. Jorma came to the ADR studio and said, “I need something heavy.” The recorder was like, “Um…what?” He found from the foley stage this big piece of asphalt. He was doing the whole eight-hour day with this huge weight doing like this the whole day just for the breathing. That’s something cool.

BM: The other thing I was really caught by was the simultaneous desolation and beauty present in the Lapland area. It’s so important for the story. Shot on location I would assume?

JH: Definitely. That’s something that’s really important to me. To be in a really rough place and that gives you more production value over anything. It was important to me to be in a place as open as possible. Not to have buildings or trees or anything you could hide behind. You’re just alone in this place that you can see just continues and continues. You have to deal with it. There are no police you can call. You are there and you are dealing with your own problems and you have to find a way to conquer your problems or die. It really gives you that sense…because it’s so empty, but beautiful. There’s something really cool about that place.

BM: I’m always fascinated nowadays, especially with the filmmaking process with COVID playing such a big role. I’ve always been interested in how filmmakers have to adapt to this. You have a pretty limited cast, but because of the location, it doesn’t feel like a limited space. The location actually expands it out, without the bevy of crewmembers to go with it.

JH: It’s production value. It feels big, even though it’s small. I like isolated stories. I like to be in that place. I also like the crew to be in a place like far, far away from home. Not to be able to go home in the evening with your wife and kids to come back in the morning. You’re there the whole time and you have one job to do and it’s doing this film. I feel that’s the only way to make a film. I can’t go home in the evening when I feel like that. I’d rather sit with the DoP (Director of Photography) have a couple of beers and talk about what we are going to do tomorrow.

BM: I recently talked with Finnish director Alli Haapasalo and she was talking about the state of the Finnish film industry. She said it was a real exciting time where Finnish films are starting to snowball into the mainstream. Her concerns were with financing and how far you can stretch a dollar. Is that always the struggle with some of the films you are involved with?

JH: Of course. In Finland we have 5 million people. If you are doing a Finnish films, you can get maybe only $2 million in most cases. For me, being a huge fan of bigger movies and action, which is definitely more expensive. So, I always have to think of an angle to get most of the money from somewhere else than Finland. That’s difficult, but at the same time I think it’s useful to have limitation. You need enough money to do something, but if you have too much freedom, you would get lazy and wouldn’t solve the problems in the good way. You would just throw money at it to make it better.

Sisu opens in theaters on Friday, April 28th

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