Review: Land of Mine

Directed by: Martin Zandvliet
Written by: Martin Zandvliet
Starring: Roland Møller, Mikkel Følsgaard, Laura Bro, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Oskar Bökelmann
Released: March 30, 2017
Grade: A-

Land Of Mine
When it comes to filmmaking, something is thriving in the state of Denmark.  Over the past decade, we’ve seen a flurry of great films from Danish directors including Melancholia (Lars von Trier), An Education (Lone Scherfig), Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn), The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg) and In a Better World (Susanne Bier).  At the Academy Awards, Danish movies have been nominated in the best foreign language film category for 5 of the last 7 years – more than any other country over the same period.

Land of Mine was nominated at this year’s Oscars and it’s a relief to see it receiving a release, albeit a limited one, in Australian cinemas.  The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival more than 18 months ago and it’s been making its way around the world ever since.  As part of that journey, it was runner-up for the Audience Award at the 2016 Sydney Film Festival.  It clearly has appeal with both the critics and the broader public.

Directed by Martin Zandvliet, Land of Mine recounts a fascinating piece of post-World War II history that few people will be familiar with.  Denmark was an occupied territory under Germany during World War II.  Suspecting that the country would be attacked by sea, German soldiers laid roughly two million land mines beneath the sand on Denmark’s western coast.  As WWII came to a close, the issue of the land mines was a concern for the Danish soldiers who had helped reclaim the country.

In the opening scene of Zandvliet’s film, we are introduced to a Danish sergeant, Carl Rasmussen (Møller), who has been given custody of 10 young German prisoners of war.  He promises them freedom if they clear a section of beach which contains roughly 150,000 land mines.  It may sound like a barbaric, impossible act but Rasmussen has zero empathy.  Such is his rage towards the Nazis and their occupation of his country, he doesn’t even feed them for the first few days.  The Geneva Conventions carry no weight and he couldn’t care if they live or die.

I’ve seen plenty of great WWII films that make an impact through bloody, gory, violent action sequences.  Land of Mine does the opposite.  The tension comes from moments that are eerily quiet.  You’re watching a young kid with shaky hands try to remove the detonation device from a buried land mine.  No dialogue is necessary and all you can hear is the sound of wind and crashing waves.  There were parts where I couldn’t look at the screen.  I closed my eyes, bowed my head, and hoped that an explosion would not follow.

While these characters are fictional, such events did take place across Denmark between 1945 and 1947.  Close to 1,000 German soldiers, many of them teenagers, lost their lives in trying to defuse the land mines.  Once a section had been cleared, they were forced to walk across the area, arm-in-arm, to make sure none had been missed.  It’s not shown in the film but these “death marches” were often attended by Danish villagers who watched them like a sporting event.

It’s no surprise that Land of Mine has sparked controversy and debate.  The Nazis were responsible for the death of millions of people between 1939 and 1945 but the film will leave many feeling sympathetic towards these German prisoners of war.  We learn more about their past and we see the effects of the painstaking exercise on their fragile psyche.  Rasmussen also softens as he gets to know the boys.  He starts asking the same question that is asked of the audience – do two wrongs make a right?

Shot on location at the same Danish beaches were the mines were buried 70 years ago, Land of Mine is a compelling, fascinating history lesson with a moral that is just as relevant today.