Defusing an explosive in western cinema is very rarely as tense as it should be. With the exception of brilliant films The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow) and Gallipoli (Peter Weir), the suspense surrounding characters handling something so volatile, which with the slightest fault could literally blow them apart in an instant, is often suppressed by plot armor and convention. Leave it to famously blunt European cinema to challenge this. Danish* Director Martin Zandvliet has presented us with a taut, highly strung yet somewhat sobering and hopeful drama in Land of Mine, fully fleshing out the suspense and tragedy of a post-WWII landscape.
Collecting awards and audience prizes at several film festivals around the world, this based-on-a-true-story about young German prisoners of war forced to disarm and remove tens of thousands of hidden landmines on the beaches of Denmark – behind enemy lines – is nihilistic on the surface, complemented by a dreary tone that’s set against a beautiful beachside landscape. Zandvliet’s composition is ideal and complicated, taking us from a confined training camp for disarming mines – which many don’t make it out of alive – to a wide-open space that’s free and breezy for the Danish, but confined for the team of young boys who are all stuffed into a rotting wooden cottage on a farm and locked inside each night.
Emotionally engaging oneself with the premise is a complex task for the viewer, made easier with the flawless physical performances from the boys and their harsh superior, Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Rolland Moller). Rasmussen is an unrelentingly cold and powerful force, as terrifying as he is viscous in expressing his disregard for the boys or the danger they are in. On the one hand, the scale of brutality from the Nazis had an unspeakable and enraging affect on their enemies, and on the other, these are rather likable teenage boys who barely had anything to do with the army, forced to join just before the war ended. The dissonance is challenging, but humanity is an unmistakable undercurrent in Land of Mine, driving the sympathetic plight of these young boys which is affecting, even if the film waits much too long to give the leads distinctive personalities.
With their bear hands, the boys are forced to dig in the sand for landmines and carefully disarm each one. It’s an enormous, painstaking task and Zandvliet’s austerity captures the fear and panic that often overwhelms the POWs, without the need for melodrama.
The reality is grim, and these boys are marked for death as far as the Danish army are concerned, unworthy of even a consistent stream of sustenance and only there to clear up mess that they themselves had nothing to do with. Clearing 45,000 landmines is a perilous, repetitive task that is about as unpredictable as you can get, and when mines do explode the impact – physical and emotional – is overwhelming, a slap back to reality as any smiles painted on their youthful faces are smacked straight off. The scenes of impact are unflinching, unconcerned with anything but forcing viewers to confront the harrowing reality these boys are facing, sickness and death looming other them despite the war being declared “over”.
The dynamic with Rasmussen is a strong anchor for the film and though the development between him and the boys is predictable at times, the fatherly sense of protection the Sergeant feels despite his even harsher superiors gives room for Zandvliet to successfully work in themes of redemption, humanity, empathy, and forgiveness. These themes, like the beach, are placed directly next to the sadness of blind hope and determination these young actors (particularly Louis Hofmann as Sebastian) portray so well.
Brutal, visceral, but still managing to maintain a gentle touch of compassion, Land of Mine is a gripping post-war drama that deserves to be mentioned amongst the best foreign films of recent years. It’s a challenging watch, but any viewer would walk out with a lingering mix of sadness and hope that extends far beyond the screen and speaks to the power of great storytelling.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Run Time: 101 mins
Land of Mine is screening as part of the 63rd annual Sydney Film Festival. One remaining screening is scheduled for Sunday 19th June, 6:15pm, at Hayden Orpheum Cremorne. More information and tickets can be found HERE.
*Updated to reflect accuracy