‘Land of Mine’ Review: Danish Oscar Entry Recounts a Dark WWII Story

Denmark’s use of teenage German POWs to clear land mines makes for searing, timely drama

Land of Mine

After 70 years of World War II being mined for cinematic stories, it would seem as if no fresh stories are left to be told — but writer-director Martin Zandvliet has managed to unearth “Land of Mine,” set in the immediate aftermath of the war.

A group of barely pubescent captured German soldiers are ordered by Danish authorities in 1945 to find, disable and remove a good portion of the 2 million landmines planted by the Germans along the coast of Denmark. Now that the war is over, the moral responsibility is obvious: It seems logical that the defeated German forces should take on this perilous task, since it was their country that laid the mines in the first place.

While it’s a fictional tale, “Land of Mine” is based on history. Many of those who swept and cleared Nazi mines in Denmark were teenage boys. The use of children for WWII minesweeping was later decried by historians as the worst case of war crimes ever committed by the Danish.

Zandvliet puts a human face on the German soldiers, and that visage is fresh-faced, frightened and homesick. Their assignment is fraught with massive peril. If these soldiers make the slightest mistake, they will be horribly maimed if not blown up and killed.

The powerfully suspenseful story focuses on group of 14 surrendered German soldiers — a few looking scarcely into their teens — as they work on a desolate, seemingly endless, stretch of beach. It’s vividly illuminating about European post-war attitudes: the Germans were the unmitigated villains, even these lowliest conscripted soldiers whose only desire was to get back home to their families. The wrath felt towards them allowed their Danish captors to behave viciously, in the name of righteous anger.

Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (an excellent Roland Moller, “A Hijacking”) treats the young soldiers with unconcealed contempt. He oversees their dangerous land mine work in an extraordinarily abusive and cold-hearted fashion, but he softens somewhat as he realizes these soldiers are mostly scared, dutiful youths. “You should have told me I was getting little boys,” he complains to his superior. Just when it seems the film might be growing predictable, it takes a turn and subverts our expectations; much of the film’s power lies in these unexpected curves.

Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, “Land of Mine” is a powerful epic, superbly acted, tense and unsettling, but also poignant and occasionally tender. Moller plays Rasmussen with complexity and depth; he’s already won several awards for his performance in Europe, and deservedly so. He kicks off the film in a ferocious mood as he watches conquered German troops file past him.

He assaults one of them for a mild offense and unleashes a fury that seems to encompass the world’s enmity toward the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. “This is my country,” he bellows. “You’re not welcome here!” While the viewer recoils from his vicious attack, we comprehend what drives it, and that’s the beauty of this film: we understand all sides.

While the film lays bare the highly charged emotions in the months following the Second World War, it also feels timely in the wake of the presidential effort to ban Muslims from the United States. Humans are quick to blame and vilify, but when they get to know those they perceive as the enemy, matters grow more complicated. Rasmussen stands in for anyone who has demonized an entire race or nationality for the actions of a few. His emotional evolution conveys the glimmer of human decency.

The film’s only mild weakness is that a few of the 14 men in the squad are not developed fully enough. It’s not that that all blond Aryan soldiers look alike, but here it can feel that way. Perhaps it was Zandvliet’s intent to make several of the prisoners seem interchangeable, since that is how they might seem to their enemies, and to Rasmussen. (It brings to mind “Black Hawk Down,” where it was tough to tell one of the helmeted Americans from the other.)

But a few of the Germans leave an indelible impression: A pair of sweetly devoted twins Ernst (Emil Belton) and Werner (Oskar Belton) are perhaps the most memorable, followed by Sebastian (Louis Hoffman), who serves as the group’s unofficial protector and conscience. These young men are housed in a rickety shack, given minimal nourishment and tasked with rendering a lonesome swath of Danish coastline safe again. They must find and defuse 45,000 land mines buried under the sand, unscrew the detonators carefully, and gently lift them out of their hiding places. It’s an unimaginably dangerous assignment and we watch, with wracked nerves and heart in mouth.

The title, while easy to remember, is an unfortunate play on words, making this deadly serious subject seem almost jokey. The original Danish title is more apt: “Under the Sand.”

Camila Hjelm’s superb painterly cinematography renders that sand and the stark, grey windswept beach into a haunting character of its own. Zandvliet’s bleak compositions are particularly striking — soldiers lying facedown on the sand, inching along and fixedly disarming mines, their youthful skin almost one with the pale beach in contrast with dark warning flags dotting the landscape. His use of ambient sound, waves lapping in the background, creates a timeless counterpoint to their urgent work.

Sune Martin’s spare but evocative score adds to the compelling, emotional experience that is “Land of Mine.” While it is painful to watch the young soldiers face potential doom, the gradual redemption of their superior offers a palpable sense of hope.