Review: Land of Mine

Dark morality play reveals explosive secret of WWII. Roland Møller and Louis Hofmann excel as enemies drawn together.

It seems truly startling that 70 years after the madness of WWII, the global tragedy can still throw up little known acts of horror from its darkest corners. That’s the case with Danish writer/director Martin Zandvliet’s deeply affecting third feature, the Best Foreign Language Oscar-nominated Land of Mine (Under Sandet).

Set in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Berlin, Denmark’s western coastline is pockmarked with 1.5 million landmines, presumably buried in expectation of the Allied assault that in fact landed at Normandy.

A Hijacking star Roland Møller plays sergeant Carl Rasmussen, understandably seething with hatred for the enemy that so brutalised his homeland and her people, with great columns of German soldiers being expelled on foot after five years of brutal occupation. Wide eyes bulging and breath ragged, he takes direct retribution, roundly beating one man to a bloody mess for looking askance while foolishly carrying the Danish flag.

Our school-taught knowledge, allowing us to sympathise even as we are disturbed and repelled by Rasmussen’s fury, hardly prepares us for the awful truth to come. Someone must defuse those mines scarring the country. That thankless task falls not to the adult soldiers retreating, but instead to a gaggle of young German boys press-ganged into service by Hitler in the dying days of his increasingly erratic, flailing command.

Sadly for them, thrust under the command of Rasmussen, the travesty of war is far from over, with 45,000 mines to be dealt with on his beach alone. Some of them look like their voices have barely broken, though their spirits almost surely have, judging by the glassy eyed stares they share.

At first Rasmussen’s fury is so great that he’s immune to their aching sorrow, yearning for their mothers and half-dead with cold and starvation. The violence is visceral, and the suicide mission they are forced into soon scatters boys’ blood and bone, beginning with a heart-palpitating bomb school sequence set in a vast concrete container. Just as you settle in for a queasy and unrelentingly grim cavalcade of death and dishonour, Land of Mine shifts towards the well-worn path of friendship forged between enemies.

Rasmussen cannot maintain this dehumanising of these boys, merely numbers to be sent to the slaughter, more in vengeance than the very real need to clear the beaches. Sebastian (Louis Hofmann) as the oldest and wisest of the gang, plays on his commanding officer’s sense of duty, while inseparable twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Belton), amongst the youngest, make it almost impossible for him not to feel protective. There is, of course, a troublemaker in Joel Basman’s Helmut.

While Rasmussen’s transition to admittedly stern father figure, with only one major hiccup, follows a steady and largely predictable course, as do the various perils faced by the boys and a local girl, Møller, Hofman and the twins all put in such powerful performances that they rise above the narrative flow, with murky moral waters thickening.

Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, as the far less sympathetic superior Lieutenant Ebbe Jensen, is so unreservedly vicious that it breaks the circuit of Rasmussen’s blind servitude, further allowing him to question the validity of the mission. Yes, this casts a rosier glow on the films bleak premise, but there’s still horror and heartache aplenty here, expertly handled by Zandvliet and aided in no small part by the harsh, windswept landscape strikingly captured by cinematographer Camilla Hjelm.

Humanity emerges in the darkest of places, after all.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords