In the days following the surrender of Germany in May 1945 a group of young German prisoners of war was handed over to the Danish authorities and subsequently sent out to the West Coast, where they were ordered to remove the more than two million mines that the Germans had placed in the sand along the coast. With their bare hands, crawling around in the sand, the boys were forced to perform the dangerous work under the leadership of the Danish sergeant, Carl Leopold Rasmussen (Roland Møller).
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: At first the screen is dark and all we hear is heavy breathing, the kind that suggests an animal lying in wait.
Like so much in this deeply unsettling film, the effect is rattling, claustrophobic, and rather punishing.
What we are listening to is the sound of hate and it belongs to Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller), a Danish sergeant.
It is 1945 and we are on the coast of Denmark. World War II has just ended after six years but its torment lingers. Along the countries bleakly beautiful sea borders are buried more than one and a half million mines laid by the Germans in preparation for an Allied assault that never came. Carl has been assigned the task of leading a team to remove 45,000 of them.
It is a suicide mission. The intelligence is incomplete and the mines unstable, and a high mortality rate anticipated. The Danes elect to use captured Germans, mostly boys, to do the job. There is no mistaking the intention: it is a form of payback for what Denmark has had to endure over the duration of the war. Occupied only months after the start of hostilities, the Danish population had to suffer – along with the everyday agony of food shortages and lost loved ones – the indignity of a government prepared to co-operate with the Nazis, lying side by side with murderous reprisals.
As the movie begins Carl is set up as a mask of torment, a fierce victor enjoying the spite of victory. When we first meet him proper he is watching a long line of defeated Germans, former conquerors, march off to God knows what. Carl leaps from his jeep and begins to jeer at them. They are mostly lads. He beats one of them to a pulp.
At first, I thought that Land of Mine (a neat pun) would be an almost Kubrickian essay on the dehumanising mechanism of war.
Writer-director Martin Zandvliet has a similar pitiless gaze for brutality.
The film is powerfully visceral; everyone looks sick, tired and dirty and emotions are trapped in a vacuum of fear and loathing. This is not the exquisite spectacle of war either; when the violence arrives what you remember most are screams and the way a bomb can rip off a pair of arms leaving them like twisted wire after being dipped into a particularly full-bodied jug of claret.
Watch the trailer for 'Land of Mine'
Cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen gives the images a lived-in immediacy that is ironic and heartfelt in equal measure: the setting looks like a remote beachside getaway and you quickly learn to fear what lies underneath all that beautiful sand. Zandvliet is expert at using his sound design, too; the rusty scrap of a mine trigger, the ceaseless wind, the crack of a blow-up are rendered with such authenticity it churns the stomach, and puts us right inside the boys’ dilemma.
But after half an hour of this superbly crafted and paced cool even calculated exercise in punishment and suspense, Zandvliet lets the characters of the boys emerge and Carl, begins to see these lads as we have – victims of circumstance: a bunch of clueless recruits who have seen little of war or life. Carl switches strategy from ruthless slave driver to tough-love Daddy. What’s poignant about that is the fact that the boys never guess just how lonely this professional soldier is (we are left to imagine what ravages the war has made on his personal life.) Nor do they understand that the Army has made a fool of Carl, filling him with stories of wicked POWs in order to mollify any doubts about the strategy used to clear the mines.
All of which is to say that Land of Mine becomes a rather conventional war story of enemies bonding; Zandvliet is fearless at mobilising the kind of narrative tricks that would have given Hollywood execs of old pause. Here, the fate of a little girl and a gorgeous dog become images of what it means to be at peace!
Zandvliet is shameless too, about foreshadowing every death and giving it grave significance in terms of how the narrative will evolve. It’s a perverse way of comforting the audience; these boys may die but the survivors will somehow benefit from their sacrifice. Such comforting pieties diminish what’s so good about the film… its immediacy, its sense of outrage in the face of the mean force that is history, with its received opinions, and convenient truths.
But then, Zandvliet does not allow much sentiment to intrude within the film’s deeper contours; motivations are smeared with self-interest. Carl has a job to complete and keeping the boys happy is a way to save time and spare lives. Even his kindness is wrapped in a kind of vindictive glee; Carl steals extra food for his boys who are expected to survive on starvation rations. This becomes a form of rebellion against his mean-spirited superior officer Cap. Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard).
The performances are uniformly excellent. Amongst the boys – I think we are meant to accept them as teenagers – Louis Hofmann’s Sebastian is the standout. Intelligent, cool, and pragmatic he has the maturity to understand Carl as a man who is under the yoke of duty…and he uses it to his advantage. The best of the film's many subplots is the corniest; the tragic story of twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Belton).
Still, for all its splendid virtues and its bountiful emotional rewards, Land of Mine is not quite the adventurous prospect it appears to be. Which is to say it trades in murky emotions and that leaves a lasting disquiet, and that’s a relief from the stupidity of so many movies about war. But I can’t help noticing that Zandvliet has made peace with celebrating such virtues of courage and perseverance, when such hope here seems like so much wishful thinking.
Watch 'Land of Mine'
Tuesday 6 July, 12:05am on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)
Germany, Denmark, 2015
Genre: Drama, History, War
Language: Danish, English, German
Director: Martin Zandvliet
Starring: Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman