‘Sisu’ Is a “Show, Don’t Tell” Masterclass

May 5, 2023

Editor’s note: The following contains Sisu spoilers.After making a buzz in film festivals, Sisu is finally available in theaters. Written and directed by Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander (Rare Exports), Sisu has been charming audiences with its simple but effective concept of killing World War II Nazis in the most creative ways. And those who watch Sisu in theaters will realize the movie delivers everything it promises, as the non-stop violence against Nazis offers an unforgettable thrill ride. However, Sisu does much more than give us ultraviolence and catharsis. Thanks to Helander’s brilliant direction, Sisu is also a masterclass on the “show, don’t tell” storytelling rule.

What Does “Show, Don’t Tell” Mean?

Image via Antti Rastivo/Lionsgate 

“Show, don’t tell” is a literary technique that prioritizes action as a storytelling tool instead of description. The concept is frequently attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who reportedly coined the saying, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” What Chekhov means with this phrase is that guiding the reader through the action, revealing the character’s thoughts, and exploring the senses leave a stronger emotional impact than just describing what is happening in each scene.

While the expression was created in literary production, “Show, don’t tell” is often used as a golden rule of cinema. That’s because, contrary to books, films have images to help tell the story. So, when filmmakers add long exposition dialogues that reiterate what we can see on the screen, we often feel that the redundancy does more harm than good. The human mind has an incredible capacity to detect patterns and flesh-out subtleties, which is why there’s no need to stop the flow of a movie to ensure your audience gets the story.

Yet, cinema is haunted by excessive summarization and useless dialogue. It’s like studios don’t trust audiences, so they need to take their hands and guide them through even the simplest of stories. That’s what makes a screening of Sisu so refreshing. Because despite the fact the movie is a violent Nazi-killing romp, Helander’s direction still shows the potential of showing, instead of telling, to add important layers to the story and characters.

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‘Sisu’s Minimalistic Dialogue Elevates the Movie

As soon as Sisu starts, we get a short narration that explains the political situation of Finland in 1944. After fighting against the Soviet Union alongside Germany, Finland agreed to a cease-fire through which the Nordic country would cut ties with the Nazis and join the Allies in World War II. As a result, Nazi soldiers began to leave Finland toward occupied Norway. At this historical moment, we meet our hero, Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), a veteran who left the war behind and escaped civilization. At first glance, Sisu might lean a little too heavily on narration. However, after this necessary contextualization, the movie embraces silence as a powerful storytelling tool.

Sisu’s protagonist doesn’t utter a single word until the movie’s final moments, right before the credits roll. And yet, Helander and Tommila work together to craft a fascinating character. For the whole first chapter of Sisu, we join Aatami in his self-imposed exile. We watch as he tries to find gold in a river, spends time with his dog, and rejoices when the treasure is found. We also see his sad eyes as he plays with the wedding ring wrapped around his finger. And when Aatami washes the dirt from his hardworking body, the camera focuses on the scars covering his skin.

There’s a whole life story being told by Sisu’s first chapter alone, without a single line of dialogue. There’s no one to explain what each subtle detail means since Sisu is shot and edited so that we understand Aatami’s loss and trauma, his violent past, his love for his dog, and the hopes he feeds of buying a peaceful life with the gold he finds. The whole sequence is a lesson on “show, don’t tell.” Still, even though Aatami’s enemies don’t share the same disposition for silence, Sisu sticks to minimalistic dialogue for its entire runtime.

Watching Aatami Mow Down Nazis in ‘Sisu’ Is Exhilirating

Image via Lionsgate

It’s exhilarating to watch Aatami mow down Nazis and use anything he can get his hands on as a tool for survival. And to be fair, if Sisu was just an over-the-top action movie where the protagonist kills Nazis, we would already be satisfied with it. However, Helander’s determination to show things instead of telling them gives multiple scenes an unexpected emotional weight. For starters, every set piece gets better when there are no dumb goons to scream unnecessary things such as “he’s killing us.” Without the distraction of dialogues, the whole cast counts only on their facial expressions to convey the rage, fear, and surprise of each encounter.

By showing, not telling, Sisu can also give key characters a richer personality. When ruthless SS commander Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie) finds a nug of gold amidst the corpse of Nazi soldiers, we don’t need someone to tell us what he’s thinking. By the way that Hennie toys with the metal between his fingers, looking at the horizon, we know the whole company will follow Aatami in search of the treasure. Aatami also caresses the head of his dead horse, showing his affection for the animal without speaking out loud for the public to get an auditive confirmation of his feelings. And when Aatami is captured and hung by the Nazis, there’s no one-liner to tarnish the moment, no villainous speech in which Bruno gloats. Instead, the execution ends with the soldier Schütze (Onni Tommila) taking off his hat in respect of his fallen enemy. And when Bruno mimics the gesture, we gain new insight into how the SS commander views Aatami, not as a pest to be squashed but as a rival who deserves respect.

Sisu’s first concern is delivering a highly-entertaining historical movie filled with action and dead Nazis. Still, Helander’s latest movie also proves he’s a storyteller who fully understands the concept of “show, don’t tell.” And by sticking to this principle, Helander sets an example that more filmmakers should follow.

Sisu is currently slaying Nazis in theaters.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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