It’s a well-done film about a little-known chapter of history.
It’s May of 1945, and Germany has surrendered, bringing World War II to a close in the European theater. The official fighting may be over, but over two million mines remain on the coast of Denmark, thanks to German troops who placed them there in the belief that it would be the location of an Allied invasion. Mines don’t expire, and there’s no way to turn them off remotely, so they must be located, disarmed, and removed, one by one.
Who should undertake this supremely hazardous job? Someone had the bright idea that German prisoners of war would be perfect for it, primarily because no one was going to feel sorry for them after all Denmark had suffered during the German occupation. It’s one of those stories that tends to get left out of the history books, probably because it was a war crime according to the Geneva Convention, and as such flies in the face of black-and-white judgments (Denmark = good, Germany = bad) about the conduct of war.
That may change thanks to Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine, a feature film that follows the fortunes of a group of 14 young German prisoners of war assigned to clear a specific section of beach, under the command of Danish troops. The Germans in question are mostly teenagers, some barely out of childhood and were most likely drafted near the end of the war. As such, they were hardly responsible for laying the mines, let alone for anything else Denmark suffered during the war, but they drew the short straw, so to speak, and are being required to pay for the crimes of their elders.
When we first meet their direct commander, Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller), he’s beating up a German prisoner, expressing with his fists the hatred and frustration shared by many Danes. Rasmussen is one tough guy, and at first, he has no sympathy for these young men, exhorting them to work faster even as they are killed one by one and showing a complete lack of interest in matters such as providing them with adequate food (another violation of the Geneva Convention). Gradually, he comes to realize that abusing them won’t get the job done any faster, and he also begins to see the young men as individual human beings. Rasmussen’s ability to change contrasts with the attitude of his commander (Mikkel Følsgaard), who remains firmly in the “the only good German is a dead German” camp.
The German prisoners appear first as a fairly undifferentiated mass of frightened young men, but over the course of the film, we, like Rasmussen, get to know them as individuals. This humanization process raises the stakes, because we come to care about them and hope that each will survive to make it back to his family. They’re facing long odds, of course, and are constantly at risk of being killed or maimed (of the 14 men who took part in the actual operation, 10 were killed or severely injured), and, like them, we can never really relax. Zandvliet expertly maintains a balance between underplaying the risk and turning the film into a gorefest, and while Land of Mine certainly deserves its R rating, there is no gratuitous violence in it.
Land of Mine has won a slew of international awards and was Denmark’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards. It’s a well-done film about a little-known chapter of history and is sure to spark discussions about the ethics of the incidents portrayed on screen as well as admiration for its cinematic qualities. | Sarah Boslaugh