Inspired by true events in 1945, director Martin Zandvliet’s powerful Academy Award-nominated film about Denmark’s treatment of German prisoners, Land of Mine, demonstrates that the aftermath of war can often be just as brutal as the bloody conflict itself.
Fearful of an allied invasion, Nazi forces left behind two million landmines on Denmark’s western coast and German prisoners of war were forced to defuse and clear the mines in violation of the 1929 convention relating to the treatment of POWs. Even more shocking, many of these prisoners were inexperienced youths who had seen little of war, some as young as thirteen. Land of Mine opens with a brutal scene, which sets the tone for its first half.
Danish veteran Sergeant, Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) picks on a German soldier and smashes his face in because he is carrying a Danish flag. His hatred and contempt is palpable. Accompanied everywhere by his beloved dog Otto, whose company he evidently prefers to human contact, Rasmussen is initially sadistic and cruel towards the captives, denying them food, taunting and beating them. But it is a rite of passage for the sergeant. Gradually he softens towards the boys, finds them food at the risk of his reputation, and even plays football with then on a rare day off.
Rasmussen promises them their freedom and release back to Germany after they have cleared all the mines, but another officer, Lieutenant Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), has different ideas. Things come to a head between the two men when Ebbe refuses to release the survivors. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards, Land of Mine is not your average war film. While there is impressive attention to historical detail, and plenty of action, it is the quieter moments that remain with you.
Zandvliet focuses on the harrowing experiences of the young prisoners and their shared humanity. The boys’ terror, combined with their hope for a better future, is heartbreakingly sad and the inevitable scenes of bloodshed and violence are sometimes unbearable to watch. Camilla Hjelm Knudsen’s cinematography is remarkable. Picturesque shots of the coast line and scenes of stark natural beauty are in sharp contrast to the appalling conditions endured by the POWs and the shots of abrupt explosions that sever limbs and lives.
The two Danish leads are terrific and there are some equally great performances from the German camp. Particularly memorable are Louis Hoffman who plays Sebastian, the de facto leader of the captives, Joel Basman as the hot-headed Helmut and Emil and Oskar Belton as the two youngest members of the group, twin brothers Ernst and Werner, who can’t function without each other. Land of Mine serves as a poignant reminder that revenge destroys more than it satisfies and that compassion aids the healing process.
Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop