Nazis make great movie villains. There are countless examples across more than 80 years of cinema, from Major Heinrich Strasser, played by Conrad Veidt, in 1942’s “Casablanca,” to Standartenführer Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz, in 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds;” and from Major Arnold Ernst Toht, played by Ronald Lacey, in 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” to Red Skull, played by Hugo Weaving, in 2011’s “Captain America: First Avenger.”
Nazi villains symbolize existential evil. They are ruthless, diabolical, cold and calculating. They are generally depicted as being capable of horrific acts against humanity, and of unthinkable explorations of brutality.
To some degree, the Nazi movie villain is low-hanging fruit in terms of antagonists. Given the number of years that have passed since the end of World War II, they can feel a bit cliché. To viewers, they can come across as over-the-top fascist caricatures. But Nazism — the far-right totalitarian political ideology associated with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party — was a cult of violence so vicious and destructive that even the most detailed cinematic interpretations cannot adequately depict the scope of Nazi atrocities.
Why do Nazis make great movie villains? Because the real-world Nazi Party that emerged during Hitler’s rise to power in 1930s Europe espoused such principles as antisemitism, scientific racism, extreme nationalism, and white supremacy.
They despised liberal democracy and the concept of universal equality. They eliminated hundreds of newspapers and seized control of printing plants in order to control the flow of information. Through the German Student Union, they initiated book burnings, systematically destroying ideas the party deemed subversive. They orchestrated the mass extermination of Jews, Romani, Slavs and the physically and mentally disabled. They also sought to exclude from society various marginalized groups, including the lesbian and gay community, Blacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses and political opponents — many of whom were imprisoned in concentrations camps where they, too, were exterminated.
Since most moviegoers continue to identify these policies as utterly despicable, Nazis still make great movie villains.
In “Sisu,” a lone gold prospector faces a Nazi death squad in Finland in 1944. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, “Sisu” was released April 28 in select theaters. The film made its streaming debut on May 16 on multiple platforms, including Vudu and Amazon Prime Video.
“Sisu” is set after the Moscow armistice, in which Finland agreed to cede territory to the Soviet Union to bring an end to the Continuation War. It also ended Finland’s cooperation with Nazi Germany, which had provided troops and military aid to Finland. As part of the armistice, the Soviet Union demanded that Finland expel all German troops from its territory. This campaign was known as the Lapland War.
As the German troops departed, they adopted a scorched-earth policy, destroying communities throughout their retreat.
The movie revolves around Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), a lone prospector who discovers a vein of gold in a remote part of Lapland. He collects his cache and heads to the closest urban center. On the way, he encounters a squad of Nazis making a slow retreat across the landscape. He also witnesses some of their handiwork: Torched villages dot the countryside, and the corpses of hanged Finns swing from utility poles along the road.
When one small group of Germans attempt to steal his gold, Aatami reacts violently, killing them all.
The main group of Nazis — who are hauling a small group of young women, presumably as their human spoils of war — find their fellow soldiers massacred and deduce that Aatami is carrying gold. They give chase — not so much for revenge, but because their commanding officer, SS Obersturmführer Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie) realizes that Germany is losing the war and that stealing the gold would give him an exit plan.
After a prolonged pursuit, Helldorf and his squad eventually catch up to Aatami. They hang him, steal his gold, and leave him for dead.
It doesn’t take long for the Nazis to realize that Aatami is no ordinary miner. He is a former Finnish commando whose family was slaughtered by Russians in the Continuation War. He is a legend among his countrymen and is rumored to have killed more than 300 Soviet soldiers before leaving the battlefield behind him.
What follows is an opera of gory violence as Aatami plows through the Nazi troops trying to recover his gold.
There’s no need to look for deeper meanings here. “Sisu” is gritty, blatant, bloody action cinema. It is a reckoning for sins that can never be exonerated and must never be forgotten. It is poetic vengeance delivered with lean, masterful precision.
Helander imbues his film with elegant intensity and measured pacing. There is a nod to Quentin Tarantino, particularly in how the director organizes the film into succinct chapters. The viewer may also detect parallels with films such as “Mad Max” and “First Blood,” though “Sisu” really only echoes their themes.
Aatami evokes Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy as the embodiment of the antihero: quiet, curt, eccentric, and driven by a fervent sense of justice. His commitment to self-preservation is so extreme that his survival skills border on the supernatural.
“Sisu” makes room for that level of implausibility. There’s no real need for suspension of disbelieve as this story comes across as a legend or tall tale. The viewer accepts narrative hyperbole, exaggerating this character’s feats to project him as a near mythical figure of vindication, validation, and retribution.
The German soldiers in “Sisu” aren’t faceless Nazi caricatures. They aren’t mere symbols of monstrous evil. They actively display their complicity with the Nazi principles of genocide. They exhibit the full extent of their inhumanity. They justify their actions by systematically dehumanizing those who stand in opposition to their objectives.
And in this simple but unrelenting action film, Helander sees to it that they get what’s coming to them. “Sisu” is a high-octane grindhouse rhapsody that offers a straightforward and engrossing story punctuated by bursts of outrageous, satisfying ferocity.