Land of Mine Review
Madeleine Copley | 05/04/2017
It often feels as though every interesting and original film about the Second World War has been made. But then something like Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine is released.
Under sandet (as it was titled in Denmark) is set immediately following the end of the German occupation of Denmark. The premise is a fairly simple one: a gang of teenage German prisoners of war are sent to the austerely beautiful west coast of Denmark to defuse mines or literally die trying under the supervision of Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller), a Danish sergeant, weathered and cynical, who begins to enjoy the company of the boys. Indeed, we are meant to think of them as boys – testament to this is the childish attention to the naming of a pet beetle, hopelessly naïve dreams of the future and the softness of the young actors’ features.
From the outside, such a premise sounds perilously close to descending into the jejune sentimentality endemic of military films (and not only the less sophisticated works). It is not only the prospect of the horrific fate awaiting the boys - one Zandvliet and cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen are not squeamish about portraying in all its terrible and gruesome pity – that ensures the film remains taut, the audience ever bracing itself for the inevitable blast of an exploding mine. It is impossible to ignore the constant undercurrent of moral ambiguity running through the film.
Despite Knudsen’s cinematography being suffused with light, opacity pervades the film. The motives underlying Rasmussen’s decision to steal food from a nearby base under the command of the impassive Lieutenant Ebbe (Mikkel Følsgaard) are never clear to us. Perhaps he is motivated by a dislike of Ebbe, a spark of genuine concern for the boys’ welfare, or – as Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hofmann) observes – the knowledge that the boys are likely to work better if they have eaten. We never know for certain whether the boys learn the true fate of childlike Wilhelm Hahn (Leon Seidel). We cannot say whether Ebbe is as coldly heartless as he seems, or merely an obedient junior officer.
Instead of the moral absolutism that underpins many WWII films (the Allied and Axis powers so often lazily presented merely as the good/evil binary), the moral dichotomy Zandvliet explores is personal, rather than national or ideological. The film opens with an act of wanton brutality by Rasmussen and closes with one of great humanity and personal sacrifice. He gives the boys a weekly day off and gladly shares it with them only then to force his prisoners to tramp every inch of the cleared areas in search of unexploded mines after the death of his dog.
Land of Mine is by turns almost unbearably gruesome, intensely moving and highly interesting. As an anti-war film, Under sandet certainly achieves its end. It is sobering in the extreme. The suffering of war is nearly impossible to comprehend, easily swamped by the sheer scale of the thing. By setting the film on a few kilometers of beach amongst a group of 14 boys out of 2,600, Zandvliet is able to find an astonishing depth. Greatness in cinema, as in literature, is to capture enormity and universality in the small and personal.