Land Of Mine (Under sandet)

Denmark (2015) Dir. Martin Zandvliet

Another film about World War II that is “based on true events” – haven’t we emptied that particular well already? As it transpires we haven’t and if Land Of Mine is any indicator, there is still a huge wealth of important but overlooked tales of horror and unrecognised heroism yet to be shared.

In post-war Denmark the balance of power has shifted in the wake of the Danish having finally liberated themselves from Nazi occupation. Showing the same disdain they received the Danish army send a group of unskilled teenage German POWs to the West Coast to be trained in finding and defusing some of the 1.5 million landmines planted by the Nazis along the Danish coastline.

Under the stringent watch of embittered Dane Sergeant Carl Leopold Rasmussen (Roland Møller) the youngsters are treated like slaves, having been told they will be allowed to go home after three months. Some of them try to remain positive about their futures whilst other try to make the most of their duties but as the numbers fall and with the constant abuse and scorn from Rasmussen, morale is hard to keep up.

Trying to recall the last time there was a Second World War film not made by the Germans that portrayed their own soldiers in such a sympathetic light, and in essence put them in the role of de facto victims, is not easy. But, this is what the Danish have done with Land Of Mine, complete with its cheeky double meaning, presenting us with an objective reminder that the suffering worked both ways.

No doubt some will find the idea of being asked to support the Nazis a bit much but the group under scrutiny here are teens recruited at the last few months who were clearly out of their depth and maybe not fully aware of what they were fighting for. By the looks of things they didn’t see much action, if any, and can hardly be called soldiers but such distinctions didn’t matter during this conflict.

Rasmussen’s inherent hatred for the Germans is demonstrated in the first minute where he beats up a Nazi soldier for carrying a Dutch flag, reclaiming it for his country. When Captain Ebbe (Mikkel Følsgaard) delivers the young lads to Rasmussen, he tells them not to expect any warm welcomes from his compatriots and suck it up. It is not long before Rasmussen is slapping the boys about but this is playful compared to some of the treatment other officers dole out to them.

The mindset is that the boys must pay for what their army did, with Ebbe’s sophistry being “if you are old enough to go to war, you can clear up your mess too” but gradually Rasmussen sees through this and defies orders by smuggling food to his workers to keep their spirits and strength up. One of the boys, Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hofmann) even seems to be getting through to the sergeant but things can change on the turn of a heel.

Writer-director Martin Zandvliet asks two important questions here – when is the right time to let go of our anger and is paying back in kind ever really justified when the link to the true perpetrators is perhaps a little lateral. Zandvliet isn’t turning the tables on our sensibilities for personal or artistic dramatic effect, he is relating what actually happened. The ending reveals that over 50% of the 2,000 Germans – mostly boys – were either killed of severely injured through mine hunting.

In the beginning it is a matter of perspective – the Germans had just spent the past six years trampling all over Europe, causing a knock-on effect that saw the dispute spread across the globe – so the Danish do have the right to be holding residual hostilities towards them. But in taking it out on youngsters, they are now the cruel beasts complicit in unspeakable war crimes no better than those committed by the Nazis.

Ebbe holds on to the belief that all Germans are ripe for whatever retribution is meted out, refusing to take into account their immaturity and lack of sufficient contribution to the Nazi war effort as intangible culpability. The war may be over but the aftershock is still being felt and letting go isn’t going to be easy. Perhaps looking at it now in hindsight through modern eyes, it is hard to appreciate that taking the high road and looking at moving on wasn’t going to be so straightforward.

Zandvliet proffers compelling and harrowing account of the viscidities endured by these petrified teens and the slow path to forgiveness and redemption for Rasmussen, reminding us of the core message that runs through every war story, the human cost of these conflicts. By eschewing a musical soundtrack and avoiding telltale cues, the summarily exploding mines come as a genuine shock whilst the silence makes the tensions even more unbearable as the boys inches closer to potential death.

Despite a lack of fighting there is still room for horror, the most graphic example being a boy with his arms blown off, whilst the intransigence of the enmity harboured by the Danish towards the German boys has the power to sting and shock in the same way racism and homophobia does today. This is certainly a film that plays on the whole range of our emotions.

The cast are all uniformly on point, from the scared, naïve youngsters to the brutish, vengeful Danes, and drawing the audience in with their layered portrayals of people still trapped by the politics of war in its aftermath. The panoramic photography is stunning but still captures the chilling austerity of the dour and fraught mood.

In the same vein as many modern World War II set films, Land Of Mine hits hard with its plea for showing compassion and empathy without any forced didactic intent, making its case through acutely observed, richly composed and beautifully acted storytelling.