Through its fictional story, Danish film “Land of Mine” illuminates a small, dark epilogue of the World War II which has not been known well to most of us. Although it often feels heavy-handed especially during its third act, the movie mostly works thanks to its realistic storytelling approach and commendable performances, and we come to get a harrowing glimpse into what has been regarded as, according to the IMDB trivia, the worst case of war crimes ever conducted by the Danish state.
It is 1945 May, and the war is finally over with the surrender of Nazi Germany, but the subsequent liberation of Denmark does not seem to bring any peace or comfort to Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller), an aggressive guy still seething with anger and hostility as reflected by his heavy breathing heard at the beginning of the film. While he is driving by a long line of German soldiers, he becomes quite furious when he happens to spot a German solider carrying a Danish flag, and then he mercilessly beats that unfortunate soldier to a pulp before taking away that flag from him.
Like Rasmussen, the Danish Force has no mercy or compassion on German soldiers either, who are coerced to do a very dangerous job in the west coast areas of Denmark. As mentioned during one explanatory scene, around 2.2 million land mines were planted there by the German Force during the war because these areas were regarded as the potential spots which could be invaded by the Allied Forces, and the movie later informs us that more than 2,000 German soldiers were forced to remove all those buried mines after the war. That was a serious violation of the international treaties during that time as well as the Geneva Conventions of 1949, but those soldiers had no choice at all because they lost the war.
Many of them were adolescent boys enlisted in the army around the end of the war, and we meet some of such boys as they go through a brief training session for their minesweeping job. Although a very few of them have handled mines before, they are even instructed to defuse a real mine at one point, and that leads to a suspenseful moment when one of the boys becomes quite nervous in the middle of the process.
They are simply expendable as enemy soldiers, and we soon see how they work in a remote beach area to which they are assigned. Under Rasmussen’s strict supervision, they slowly crawl on their respective sections as poking sticks into the sands, and they become more aware of numerous mines hidden around them as they continue their highly risky work. If they are not very careful in each move, they can lose their limbs or life at any point, and some of those mines turn out to be quite trickier than they look.
Right from the first day, Rasmussen surely shows the boys that he is not a nice guy at all, and he harshly treats them while not giving a damn about their poor, hazardous work condition. When one of the boys tells him that they have not eaten anything since they arrived, he casually disregards that, and the boys come to resort to a desperate measure, which only makes their situation worse than before.
After a sad, tragic incident on the beach, Rasmussen begins to feel compassion toward the boys, and he soon finds himself caring about them more than expected. He brings some food to them, and he gradually becomes nicer to them as trusting them more. Around the time when two new boys are sent to the area, the mood around him and the boys feels sunnier than before, and it seems everything will be all right for them once their job is done.
However, there is still the harsh reality around them, and the movie pushes its characters into a number of rather blatant dramatic scenes for emphasizing that. A certain plot turn around the beginning of the third act is a little too abrupt, and the same thing can be said about how the following conflict is resolved later. The third act often feels jarring in terms of narrative as a result, and I think it arrives at the ending a bit too conveniently.
Nonetheless, the movie keeps engaging us via its strong elements. The director/writer Martin Zandliet and his cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen did a nice job of establishing the realistic period atmosphere on the screen, and the movie gives us several impressive moments of stark beauty as Knudsen’s camera calmly observes the wide, bleak landscapes in which the boys constantly struggle to work and survive. While Roland Møller, who previously played one of the crucial supporting characters in “A Hijacking” (2012), ably supports the film with his intense lead performance, the young performers around him are also believable in their respective roles, and Louis Hofmann and Joel Basman are particularly notable as two different key members of the group.
“Land of Mine”, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last month, is worthwhile to watch for not only its interesting historical subject which has never been widely discussed in public during last 72 years but also its calm but compassionate human drama. I recognized its noticeable flaws, but I was also gripped by its tense, powerful moments, so I recommend it with some reservation.