Postwar Cruelty in Oscar-nominated 'Land of Mine'
The long gray-green file trudges down a gravel road, boys mostly, in the uniforms of just-defeated Nazi Germany. It’s Denmark, 1945, and the boys are prisoners of war. They are not marching off to a camp, much less to home; the army of Denmark, free after five years of German occupation, has other plans for them: They will dig out the land mines lain along the Danish coast by Nazi forces to thwart the Allied invasion that never landed. Half of the boys will die or return home missing a limb.
Land of Mine, Denmark’s contribution to this year’s Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, looks back at the unpleasant aftermath of war. A squad of frightened young Germans, plucked from high school in the death spasms of the Third Reich and sent to the front, have been assigned to clear a stretch of sand under the sneering gaze of Sgt. Carl Leopold Rasmussen (Roland Møller). The Danish sergeant beats up a couple of the Germans just to show who is boss. He shouts his orders with the hammering, in-your-face aggression of a drill instructor who hates the troops in his charge.
Human cruelty plays out in a barren setting of natural beauty, captured in stark cinematography under Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet. The boys must crawl across the clean white beach on their bellies, gently pricking the sand with sticks until they hear a metallic thump. Finding a mine, they must unbury it with bare hands, carefully unscrew a locking mechanism and gently lift out the firing pin with trembling fingers. The procedure usually goes well… until it doesn’t.
Rasmussen reveals no compassion at first, marching the Germans to the beach without food, forcing them to work even when deathly ill. But flickers of conscience can be discerned. He is a small cog in a larger engine of vengeance, a machine that takes no individual into account but metes out punishment collectively in an abstract scheme of retribution.
Land of Mine is an affecting story of the human cost of war, the difficulty in making peace and the physical, emotional and spiritual toll charged by hatred.
Opens March 17 at the Oriental Landmark Theatre.