From the days following World War II – even while it was happening – cinema has made liberal use of the war’s global impact, although Hollywood has particularly focused on delivering a jingoistic version of America’s contributions. It was, after all, the last war in which the United States emerged smelling relatively rosy. At this point, though, the movies are running low on famous battles that depict American victory: Mel Gibson had to excavate a little-known story about a conscientious objector as an excuse to eviscerate human life in the most spectacular fashion possible. This is why we get WWII-adjacent films like The King’s Speech, stories that have to bend over backwards in order to feel relevant, riding the snazzy coattails of Downton Abbey to Oscar victory over an actually great film. So now we have Land of Mine, a Danish-produced film about German soldiers immediately after the war, with nary a Yankee in sight. Fortunately, it’s got way more on its mind than “stutters are charming”.
It’s 1945 and the war is over, so German soldiers are leaving occupied Denmark. No one is happier about this than Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller), whose next assignment is to oversee a group of German prisoners of war as they systematically clear the western Danish coast of landmines that the Axis powers so thoughtfully left behind – apparently, someone thought the Allies were going to invade Denmark. The problem is that the “men” whom Rasmussen is given are almost all boys who are barely eligible for military service, let alone disarming live explosives. This is of no concern to Rasmussen’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), who doesn’t feel particularly charitable to the Germans. Rasmussen’s underfed, amateur bomb-defusal squad has no choice but to comply, with the promise that they will be sent home after the task is complete, tens of thousands of mines later.
We find out in the end credits that half of the German POWs tasked with defusing landmines in Denmark died in the process, which means that writer-director Martin Zandvliet had a very tricky task of maintaining the proper tone in his story of enemies learning to work together and empathize with each other. This film could have easily turned into a historical, high-risk version of The Mighty Ducks had it taken on even an ounce of sentimentality. That isn’t what happens here. It’s clear from the very start that Rasmussen has no love for his erstwhile occupants: the first thing we see him do is sucker-punch a marching German soldier for carrying a Danish flag. Rasmussen is bitter middle management, through and through. He resents his much-younger CO for giving him scant resources almost as much as he feels contempt for the gawky man-children who stand in the way of his honorable discharge. You get the impression that Rasmussen may have spent most of the war on the sidelines, given the simmering rage he barely attempts to conceal. Then a strange thing happens: he starts to feel compassion towards his charges.
The film’s credits cite no particular source for the events depicted, so it’s likely that Zandvliet heard about this distressing corner of WWII and was inspired to construct a story on his own. It’s irrelevant, because ultimately the point of the film is to show just how hard forgiveness can be when you have become conditioned to hate. Rather than piling on backstory and exposition about the German boys, Zandvliet clues us into their personalities by having them discuss their plans upon returning home. We get to know the soldiers based on their faces and demeanor, a directorial choice that succeeds because it is a cinematic one. We can sympathize with Rasmussen’s antipathy towards the Germans, but we are shown the fundamental humanity that unites them, complicating their relationship. When Rasmussen begins to sneak extra food to the famished soldiers, we know that his risk is borne out of a combination of selfishness – he goes home sooner if they get the job done better – and pity – the boys become ill after they eat contaminated horse feed in an effort to salve their hunger pains.
One of the film’s selling points is its breathless scenes in which the characters defuse the mines. Very few of them have even seen a mine before, and the crash course they receive in bomb defusal barely qualifies as sufficient, raising the stakes even higher than they normally would be. As such, you learn quickly not to become too attached to the characters, many of whom are blown up for one reason or another. Zandvliet edits the scenes unpredictably, so that each time a mine goes off it is freshly startling and emotionally devastating. The fact that, deep down, each of the soldiers is just a scared kid makes matters worse, particularly when the danger of their task hits home for Rasmussen on a personal level. Unlike Gibson’s aforementioned ballet of death, the explosions in Land of Mine are sudden, unromantic, and almost always lethal. Despite the often beautiful, color-drained cinematography, this movie gets ugly early and often.
It would have been easy for Zandvliet to turn Land of Mine into a hand-wringing, anti-war screed, which it decidedly is not. The film is more of a case against the emotionless bureaucracy that foments the sort of xenophobic hate that gets people needlessly killed. Zandvliet may be a Dane, but he certainly is tapped into the regrettable foreign policy of isolationism the United States is headed towards. Land of Mine may look like an old-timey version of The Hurt Locker, but you’ll leave feeling more enervated than energized.
Historical drama | Sony Pictures Classics