Land of Mine is as harrowing a film as I’ve seen, and in effect, as powerful in its anti-war message as any in its genre.
This mercilessly realist drama opens the lid on a little-known chapter of WW2 history – the forced clearing of over a million Nazi-laid mines from Danish beaches by German POWs.
The war has just ended. In the opening scene, Danish sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) comes upon a line of wretched German soldiers being marched along a road to nowhere good. Boiling over with hate the sergeant subjects one of them to a brutal beating. As his violence erupts, he shouts in his victim’s face: “This is my land – MY land!”
Clearly, his hate is fuelled by intense resentment and a lust for vengeance, and we soon learn that in this he is representative of his countrymen. And why not? The Nazi occupational forces have left their nation in a sorry state of ruin and privation, and visited who knows what atrocities upon them.
The interesting point here is that the viewer is unusually positioned: we sympathise with the hapless German soldier left crumpled and bleeding by a random savage beating, but also understand the sergeant’s motivation. Our sympathies continue to be split in this way throughout the film. We are both distanced from the characters and their fates, and immersed in their world, sometimes almost unbearably so.
The focus of the drama is the relationship between Sergeant Rasmussen and a group of young German soldiers in his charge, some of whom are mere boys. For Rasmussen, that is no cause for leniency; in a cold-sweat-inducing early scene, he orders them into a pit, one by one, to practise de-fusing live landmines with only the barest of training. The camera takes us in close and confronts us with the inescapable terror of their task. Sound is used to tyrannical effect; every turn of the rusty mine caps is amped up, as is the scraping of detonation plugs as they’re removed by trembling fingers. Each agonising second carries the threat of explosion and the annihilation of the de-fuser. It’s harrowing, hard to watch. The sergeant bawls at those struggling to control their shaking hands to hurry. It seems only a matter of time before a mine blows.
Given little or nothing to eat and locked into spartan huts by night, the young soldiers work long days on a mined beach under the watch of the sergeant, inching forward on their bellies in lines as they test the sand ahead with metal probes. They are given hope in the form of a promise that they can return to Germany once the beach is cleared of the 45,000 mines that are laid there according to a mine map. But we know that their odds of survival are low, as is the prospect of the promise being honoured. Essentially, they are on a suicide mission. And while the mines must of practical necessity be cleared, there is also a payback component to their lethal task.
In time, there is a flicker of humanity in Sergeant Rasmussen, and he begins to see the group not as soldiers or The Enemy, but as young men – boys – with little experience of war, stranded in a hostile foreign land, dirty, frightened, hungry and yearning for the familiarity and comfort of home. Indeed, they are as much victims of the Reich as the sergeant. His changing perception is contrasted with the steadfast inhumanity of his military superiors, and a trio of drunk Danish soldiers whom he sends on their way one evening after finding them subjecting one of his charges to some appalling indignities. He is now a very different man from the brute of the opening scene.
The theme of humanity lost and found that is the backbone of the drama is common to most war films, and brings with it, almost inevitably, a narrative predictability – which in itself is not a valid criticism. What’s the point of any war film if it is not to investigate humanity in extremis? Is not war – and/or its immediate aftermath – the ideal laboratory for such an investigation?
However, writer/director Zandvliet resorts to some pathos-milking devices that I have to admit worked on me initially, but on post-screening reflection, are too obvious, detracting from the otherwise consummate realism of the piece. To wit: a pet dog and a little Danish girl wander into the minefield at the beach, and the group of German soldiers includes twin brothers (you can guess, more or less, how that’s exploited dramatically).
These flaws are far from fatal, but do preclude Land of Mine from sharing equal status with anti-war masterpieces such as Full Metal Jacket and Son of Saul. That said, the acting is superb, as is most of the crafting, and in effect Land of Mine strikes a blow for humanity every bit as harrowing and powerful as any in its genre – without a shot being fired.
Land of Mine is one of the films showing at the 2016 Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival. If it’s any indication of the quality of the program, this is an event to track down.
Movie website: http://www.nordiskfilm.com/int/Press/News/LAND-OF-MINE-is-number-one/#.V4CPezX9_BY
Australian release date: Showing during the 2016 Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival (Cinema Paradiso in Perth, 21 July-3 August).
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