Land of Mine, 2015.
Directed by Martin Zandvliet.
Starring Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Emil Belton, Oskar Belton, Leon Seidel, Karl Alexander Seidel, Maximilian Beck, August Carter, and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard.
At the end of the Second World War, young German POWs are made to clear up their country’s mess by Danish troops under British command, who use the boys to detonate and remove mines along the Skallingen Peninsula on the promise that they can return home once the two million or so explosives are gone.
An Oscar-nominee in 2017 for Best Foreign Language Film, Land of Mine is an intelligent drama, which ably demonstrates the savagery and futility of war – regardless of side, nationality or conflict. A small unit of teenage German POWs, tasked with defusing some of the millions of mines placed on the west coast of Denmark, and reluctantly commanded by Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller), is the film’s focus. Filming took place on the Skallingen Peninsula, a real-life location for thousands of these Axis power explosives, adding an extra layer of meaning to the barren landscape.
A dark and under-explored part of Danish and Allied history, Land of Mine takes the conceivable view that many of the German POWs forced to undertake this dangerous and overwhelming task were mainly boys, conscripted into Hitler’s Volkssturm in the final months of the war, and boys who were, therefore, ill-prepared, under-trained, and less culpable for many of the Nazis’ crimes. It has also been suggested that Great Britain and Denmark broke the Geneva Convention of 1929 by forcing prisoners of war (of any age) to do such dangerous work.
If writer-director Martin Zandvliet can be accused of over-simplification or bias in his angle, then it is quite plausible to suggest that he strove to make a comment on the complicated nature of all wars and all people – no participants are ever wholly innocent, in the same way that they are never irrefutably guilty. It’s refreshing (and perhaps educational) to see a World War Two film where the Allies are, for want of a better term, the “bad guys”, and the German forces are given a human and relatable face. These adolescents and young men are portrayed as victims of their time and circumstances, something that is poignantly highlighted by an early conversation over what they plan on doing when they’re back home in Germany – some are more hopeful of the future than others.
Land of Mine deals with a harrowing situation, although Zandvliet knows the best ways to emphasise the bleak and horrifying aspects of the mission without it being exaggerated or mawkish, thus capitalising on the audience’s emotions. The desolate landscape of beach and sparse shrubbery is equal parts beautiful and barbaric, representing a perilous job of almost-unconquerable proportion as well as a stretch of play area in one of the film’s scarce light moments. The music is equally sparse at critical moments, and when present the hollow, jangling piano notes reflect the emptiness and hopelessness of the character-breaking situation.
Without exception, the boys of the German POW unit are brilliantly cast. Each moulds themselves to their character and situation seamlessly. Among their ranks are the cynical and aggressive Helmut (Joel Basman), optimistic Wilhelm (Leon Seidel) and the twins – sensitive Ernst (Emil Belton) and protective Werner (Oskar Belton). Louis Hofmann in particular as the quietly driven Sebastian Schumann, acting as the de facto leader of the boys, makes an impression. His dogged determination to survive his lot leads to nicely underplayed and affecting scenes with Møller’s sergeant as he tries to broker first humane treatment and then a careful comradeship. Møller does fine work as a man hardened by the war and then softened by youth – but constantly struggling with his sense of duty. As both he and his commanding officer, Lieutenant Ebbe, remind the boys at the beginning: “No on wants to see Germans here. Denmark is not your friend.”
The unscrupulous Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, who did sterling work as the unhinged King Christian in A Royal Affair) is perhaps the nearest Land of Mine gets to a villain, displaying the same sort of mercilessness and dubious pleasure from power that is often seen in a typical film Nazi – but he, of course, is not, and it’s interesting to consider that his unforgiving nature could be attributed to a hardening from his war experiences and a fierce pride and protection for his country.
As a film about mine clearing, it would be easy to assume that the film will be mostly about waiting for mines to explode and anticipating the shock – but that initial assumption of shallow focus fades quickly into the background, playing second fiddle to the human drama on-screen. When and how the explosions inevitably occur, you won’t be expecting them, but they deliver full impact, pounding viewers emotionally. The grim circumstances of Land of Mine are never downplayed.
Land of Mine will undoubtedly be overshadowed by the other World War Two film of the season – Dunkirk – but there’s room for both. For all the pride and patriotism that Dunkirk may stir in you, despite its horrors, Land of Mine tells an equally compelling narrative. It is, however, a lesser-known story of the same war, from the other side and far less glorious – even if it is post-victory whilst Dunkirk was a major defeat. For an examination of the affect that war can have on the human spirit, Land of Mine is a masterclass. It is essential viewing.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★