“Land of Mine,” the excellent Danish entry for the foreign language Oscar, is set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when the wounds of that war are still very much open. After suffering through five years of Nazi occupation, the Danes in this film, who reside on the country’s west coast, are vehemently anti-German.
In the first scene, Danish Sgt. Carl Leopold Rasmussen (the powerful Roland Møller) notices a retreating German POW brandishing a bloody Danish flag as a souvenir and descends upon him in a homicidal rage. This is the same sergeant who will soon be charged with supervising a band of much younger German POWs, practically all of them in their teens, to dismantle some 45,000 land mines out of the several million the Germans buried on the west coast in anticipation of an Allied invasion.
The boys are members of the Volkssturm, a German national militia that was created near the war’s end when able-bodied older men were no longer available. It soon becomes clear that these boys, clueless in the ways of war, were used as chattel. This is not to say that the Danes hold any sympathy for them. The officer (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) who initially corrals them and trains them in bomb dismantlement tells them not to indulge in self-pity. “Denmark is not your friend,” he says. “No one wants to see you here.”
It’s clear from the way writer-director Martin Zandvliet sets up the story that the fiery Rasmussen, who denies the boys adequate rations and pens them indoors at night, will eventually soften. It’s to the film’s credit that he does so in ways that are eminently believable. He comes to realize, as we do, that these soldiers are also casualties of war. Zandvliet makes it easy for us to feel this way, since he doesn’t have any of the boys talk about politics or Nazism. This may be a bit of a cheat, since surely there must have been among them a few who championed the Nazi cause or had relatives who did. If this sort of thing had been in the movie, it would have complicated Zandvliet’s humanist agenda but made for a more complex experience.
Instead, he focuses on a few of the boys – the angry Helmut (Joel Basman), the optimistic Wilhelm (Leon Seidel), the fearful identical twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Belton), and Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), the oldest in the group of 20 or so and the one to whom Rasmussen feels closest. Rasmussen has told them that once the mines are dismantled, they can return home, and it is this promise that the boys cling to. But because they are so ill-equipped for this dangerous work, it’s inevitable that their numbers will become decimated. When the twins talk longingly about how they will return to Berlin and become bricklayers, we sense, as we are meant to, what is in store for them.
“Land of Mine” doesn’t quite encompass the dizzying contradictions of war. Those millions of mines were, after all, planted by the Germans, so who better to dismantle them? Nevertheless, in the film’s view, innocent boys were forced to be the dismantlers, and, for Zandvliet, this constitutes a kind of war crime. (If the film were about seasoned soldiers defusing the bombs, the movie would be considerably less affecting.) By having Rasmussen, portrayed as the fiercest of German haters, ultimately sympathize with the boys, the film is demonstrating that, at least in this instance, mercy must overrule hatred. Grade: B+ (Rated R for violence, some grisly images, and language.)