More often than not, movies exploring the effects of violence and war end up trapped in an unresolved double bind. Even if they intend to exhibit the tragic loss of life and the lasting psychological scars of trauma, the viewer irresistibly feels the vicarious adrenaline rush of seeing protagonists fighting for their survival whilst dealing out justice to the bad guys. 2014’s excellent WW2 tank drama Fury, Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and this year’s above-average Marvel saga Logan come immediately to mind as examples of this dilemma.
Land of Mine is the rare war film that rises above this danger. Part of this can be ascribed to this Danish movie’s subject matter. Based upon true events, it tells the story of German POWs assigned the deadly duty of clearing two million landmines from the beaches of western Denmark.
The captured “warriors” compelled to carry out this task in Land of Mine are all adolescents, among the boy soldiers that Hitler conscripted in the desperate final months of battle in 1945. Their voices are still cracking, their facial hair is peach fuzz, and their eyes consistently register horror and bewilderment.
As a viewer, there’s no delight to be had in the suspense of wondering which of these poor kids will succumb during their rushed, abusive training on live mines at the hands of vindictive Danish soldiers, or which youngster will make a misstep on the deceptively placid beaches.
Another aspect of Land of Mine that contributes to its profundity is the choice of writer/director Martin Zandvliet to make his characters nearly anonymous. Whether prisoner or captor, all are primarily identified by their military rank or nationality. For instance, Sergeant Rasmussen, the main supervisor of the POWs, is only named midway through the film.
Likewise, Rasmussen’s prisoners are scarcely distinguished one from another and only named at infrequent intervals. At first, I saw this scant characterization as a defect in Land of Mine, but on further reflection, I recognized it as a stratagem to underscore the dehumanization of war: one’s enemies are an indistinct, impersonal mass; while one’s allies are primarily identified by their place in the pecking order.
The cinematography by Camilla Hjelm has deservedly won awards, including the Robert, the Danish version of the Oscar. The austere, muted colors of the military uniforms and the subdued beiges and grays of the beach landscapes aptly mirror the soul-deadening effects of combat and nationalistic hatred.
It takes courage for a film to give us sympathetic German soldiers, recognizing that some of them, despite the unambiguous vileness of National Socialism, were caught up in historical forces outside their control. (This is a far cry from the triumphalist Bible-quoting sniper of Saving Private Ryan or the exuberant Nazi-maiming brutality of Inglourious Basterds.) Land of Mine has the nerve to show that vileness and benevolence aren’t encoded in the color of the uniform or shape of the helmet.
Indeed, the primary tension at the heart of Land of Mine – beyond the white-knuckle suspense of which boys will survive their deadly task – involves the state of Sergeant Rasmussen’s conscience. The film opens with Rasmussen picking a German soldier out of a long line of prisoners and beating him bloody, as he shouts, “Get out – this is my country!”
Barracked at a remote farmhouse with his dependents, Rasmussen faces a military bureaucracy content to let the POWs starve while they fight a losing battle of attrition with their mine-removal duty. It’s a tribute to Roland Moller’s subtly expressive acting that we observe across Rasmussen’s face and actions the war within, between hateful indifference towards the POWs and compassion towards their childlikeness and common humanity.
The best war-themed literature contains (and usually fails to resolve) such moral tensions, from the ancient Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus to contemporary classics like Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. Sadly, such works remain evergreen in their timeliness. Seeing the frightened faces of the adolescent POWs in Land of Mine, I reflected that these Germans are only a smidge younger than the soldiers we routinely endanger for our own nation’s wet work.
3.5 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: This movie is rated R for violence, some grisly images, and language.)