Original title: Under sandet
D: Martin Zandvliet / 97m
Cast: Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Mads Riisom, Oskar Bökelmann, Emil Belton, Oskar Belton, Leon Seidel
In the wake of World War II, German POWs were sent to various places along the Danish coast with a view to their being used to clear the beaches of landmines. The fact that they were expendable made them the perfect choice for the job, and the Danes had no compunction about putting them in harm’s way (though they did train them beforehand). It was a large-scale operation, using approximately two thousand Germans – most of them barely out of their teens – to clear approximately two million landmines. And the Danes were in a hurry.
This is the background to Martin Zandvliet’s sparse yet rigorous post-War drama, Land of Mine. The German soldiers co-opted for the task are young, inexperienced for the most part, and looking forward to going back home… until the Danes come calling in the form of Lt. Ebbe Jensen (Følsgaard). He teaches them the basics of how to disarm a landmine, and then sends fourteen of them off to the coast and into the care of Sgt Carl Rasmussen (Møller). Rasmussen’s antipathy toward them is soon evidenced by his lack of concern when food supplies aren’t delivered, and the Germans begin to scavenge for food, all of which leads to sickness amongst the men and the first fatality within the group.
Despite their initial fears, the Germans unite as a team, and their conscientious approach to their work begins to pay off. A natural leader emerges, Sebastian Schumann (Hofmann), and he and Rasmussen begin to forge a relationship based on mutual respect, a situation that catches the Danish sergeant by surprise. He softens his attitude toward the men, and even brings them food from the Danish army camp further inland. Eventually, he even removes the barricade on the men’s barracks that keeps them locked in at night. Another fatality occurs, an unforeseen event that serves to make one of the men, Helmut Morbach (Basman), question the likelihood of their ever returning home. It’s an unpopular idea, but when a further death has a profound effect on Rasmussen, his reaction only serves to reinforce Morbach’s paranoia, and the men are faced with the very real possibility that all their lives will be forfeited there on the beaches.
Despite its simple storyline and set up, Land of Mine is resolutely not a simplistic tale. There’s far too much going on than it appears at first glance, and Zandvliet (working from his own script) has forged a powerful, compelling portrait of commitment under pressure, both in the relationships between the men (including Rasmussen), and in the disabling of the landmines. Zandvliet shows that, even in the worst of circumstances, bonds can be formed between even the unlikeliest of adversaries. When we first meet Rasmussen he’s in a jeep watching a large group of German POWs trudging past him on the road. He assaults one of them, displaying a deep-rooted anger towards the German soldiers that doesn’t augur well for his future charges.
For their part, the German POWs who are selected to clear the beaches are too young to have seen any meaningful action during the war, and aren’t to be blamed for the decisions made by their elders. They all look ahead to the time when they’ll be back home in Germany and making their way, fruitfully, in the world. Even though the odds are against them (and nearly half of the two thousand Germans made to remove the mines were either killed or maimed for life), these young men still have the capacity to look forward to a better, brighter future. It’s this optimism in the face of grim experience that helps give the movie a positive spin, one that’s sorely needed to balance the inevitability of their dying. And once Rasmussen discovers he can respect them as people, and not just German soldiers, then that optimism flares brightly, and in contrast to the flare of the explosions that threaten them every day.
As well as hope and optimism, the movie dwells on camaraderie and the notion of friendship under fire, but to a lesser extent. It still manages to explore the nature of reliance on others in extreme circumstances (both emotionally and practically), but it does so in an understated manner that complements the restraint Zandvliet shows in handling the narrative. This isn’t a showy, flashy movie intent on making eye candy out of explosive situations. Rather, it’s a stringent, occasionally profound meditation on the human ability to find something worth saving or fighting for in the worst of situations. All of these men confront death each day, and all of these men find strength in having each other around them.
Land of Mine‘s introspective qualities are highlighted by the performances. Møller is the nominal “angry man”, ruled by his prejudices until he realises the Germans are just young men thrown into the war like cannon fodder – just like they are when they’re on the beaches. Møller adopts a stern, patrician gaze for most of his scenes, but when Rasmussen lets down his guard (in his scenes with Sebastian), the one-time career criminal turned actor shows that he has a natural talent for portraying a character’s inner workings and thoughts. Relaxing into the role with every scene, Møller is the one cast member who draws the eye throughout, and his transformation from “angry man” to unacknowledged friend and back again to “angry man” is convincing because he’s sincere and there’s an equally sincere sense of purpose in his approach to the role.
The rest of the cast are more than capable, and provide impressive support when needed, particularly Hofmann as the thoughtful, clever Sebastian, and Emil Belton as one of two brothers, Ernst, whose sadness at the loss of his sibling leads to both triumph and tragedy in the same scene. Zandvliet never compromises with the characters, and manages to make them all feel like fully rounded human beings, ones that you could imagine being stuck in such horrendous circumstances. They populate a beautiful stretch of the Danish coastline, locations that are historically authentic, and Camilla Hjelm’s bright, stately cinematography adds a lustre to the movie that makes it seem hyper-real in places, with the blinding white of the beaches reflecting back off the blue skies above in striking fashion. Between them, she and Zandvliet have crafted a visual aesthetic that belies the grim nature of the material, and which instinctively elevates the movie beyond that of yet another post-War drama where enemies learn to respect each other.
Rating: 9/10 – its nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Oscars may have surprised some people, but Land of Mine was a worthy nominee, and it’s a movie that is well worth seeking out; bold, absorbing, and in places, delicately nuanced, this is a triumph of low-key yet resonant movie making, and full of neat directorial touches that confirm Zandvliet is a director who knows exactly what he’s doing.