Land of Mine (2016)
In matters of war, no nation is free of guilt. Regardless of whether they are produced by victorious or vanquished countries, the better war films set out facts, acknowledge wrongdoing, express regret, and seek atonement. Many of them put guilt and culpability onto the widescreen so that current and future generations may learn from the past. This is the psychological space in which we find the extraordinary Danish-German war film Land of Mine (2016).
It is 1945 and the war is over, but the beautiful Danish coastline has two million deadly mines left buried in the sand by the Nazi occupation. Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) is assigned a squad of fourteen German prisoners of war who must clear a beach that contains 45,000 active mines. The Sergeant’s treatment of the teenage boys is initially brutal: they live and work in terrible conditions, are practically starved and constantly reminded that everyone in Denmark hates them and nobody cares if they live or die. Their task is to crawl along the beach by hand, poking a stick in the sand to locate mines, then defuse them before they explode. Inevitably, many failed. With echoes of Stockholm syndrome, both captor and captives find glimpses of humanity in each other that leads to Rasmussen being suspected by his tormenting superiors of going soft on the Germans. He must walk the fine line between military obedience, personal hatred of Nazis, and his growing compassion and realisation that these are just boys who were conscripted into battle. His characterisation and its transition from hatred to acceptance frames the narrative of this high-tension drama.
Stunningly realistic cinematography with minute attention to detail amplifies the horror of this story. The acting is remarkable from a mostly unknown cast and Rasmussen’s performance captures the very essence of moral conflict. The mine-clearing proceeds inch-by-agonising-inch, and the film’s plotline inches forward at a similar pace. With camera at sand-level, we see close-up images of teenage warriors with beads of terror trickling down their faces as their sand-covered fingers slowly un-screw a detonator from a mine, knowing that an explosion will tear their body to pieces. These are some of the most heart-pulse racing moments you can experience through film. This is not entertainment nor is it for faint-hearted viewers; several scenes are horrific.
Most war films glorify battle or corner us into cheering one side or the other. This film presents an exquisite conundrum: was it morally acceptable for the Danish military to force German POWs to remove the deadly mines that the Nazi army left behind, knowing that most will die or be maimed? Or should this deadly work have been carried out by Danish soldiers? Was the inhumane treatment of teenage soldiers justifiable, regardless of the brutality of the Nazi occupation of Denmark? In the light of such questions, is this film one of justification or a confessional that seeks atonement? Land of Mine shines a bright light on what has hitherto been a dark secret of Danish history. It is a powerful and important story.
Director: Martin Zandvliet
Stars: Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman