The man sitting next to me in the theatre last night had the right idea when at this film’s close, he sighed and declaimed: “well, humanity won out!” Martin Zandvliet’s “Land of Mine” gives his people ( the Danish) and us more humanity than the immoral treatment of POWs seen on the screen warrants. The abuse shown is gruesome stuff, and we are on Danish soil.
Nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film” of 2016, “Land of Mine” takes us to the spring of 1945. The Germans had been under the false impression that a D-Day type Allied invasion would occur here. The film concentrates on one unit of a dozen or so young Germans given the fearful task of clearing a portion of the 2.2 million mines buried on the Danish West Coast. The Pioneer Corp. sergeant in charge derides the POWs with the understatement: ” Denmark is not your friend !”
While the film can be seen as a country’s confession for deeds unbecoming of captors, the atonement is half a century in coming. Fear, prejudice, and retribution are seen in the actions of both higher-ups in the Danish military and in the female quasi- farm owner who watches her seven-year -old daughter play near their out- building barracks.
The film’s title is exquisite. “Land of Mine” works on the literal and the thematic level. We begin by hearing labored breathing. The cinematography shows the weave of a uniform, and then sea waves rolling in anticipation. The camera mimics the smallness and then gives us the bigger picture. The lead character, Sergeant Carl Rasmussen ( Roland Moller ), will come to the same realization: the particulars of war time recede in support of humanity.
Rasmussen is to oversee fourteen young Nazis, who have been captured. He instructs them in mine- clearing procedures, and is less than happy when one of the boys comes up with a grid-like tool to enhance the success of their work. The boy-soldiers crawl on their bellies and poke iron rods six inches deep into the sand to locate the hidden bombs. The intensity of these scenes are piss inducing. When two mines are found on top of each other body parts fly. Still there are tender moments. Some of the boys adopt field mice as pets, play with insects, and distract a young girl in danger. Omni-present is the need to punish these conscripted soldiers for their country’s atrocities.
Rasmussen’ s growth consists of coming to know the boys and seeing them as individuals. He learns their names and uses them: Sebastian, Ernst, Helmut, etc… Given that the more one knows the harder it is to hate, our sergeant goes against orders and brings bread, onions, and potatoes to the boys. The landlady, who was paid by the Corp to feed them, has poisoned them with rat poop. Scenes showing Rasmussen cradling the wounded heads of the maimed, grieving, and starving unit members lends a fatherly role to his brutal start. The boys begin to see their overseer as a person rather than as an enemy tormentor. He lectures them fear, tries to give them hope. They see him cry for the loss of his dog, blame their inferior work, and then retaliate.
Mostly unknown actors play these parts. Their faces viewers will not forget. As one fellow reviewer has written: this is a film that should be seen. I know there are other stories of soldiers who went against command in the name of humanity. Leadership has many faces, and war changes people. “Land of Mine” will change you.