Big Screen: Land of Mine

April 12th 2017

It’s usually pretty easy to know who the bad guys are in WWII films.

The villains have swastikas on their arms, and the heroes are whoever isn’t fighting for the Nazis. However, Danish film director Martin Zandvliet isn’t interested in depicting obvious villains – in Land of Mine (Danish: Under Sandet, 2015), he prefers to find moments when “traditional” heroes act villainously.

His Oscar-nominated feature finds its story in Denmark after the war. The Danes may have been the victors, but that doesn’t mean they let they let their prisoners off lightly. Zandvliet’s film focuses on a group of young German POWs forced to clear land mines that line the coast of Denmark – mines placed there by Nazi occupiers.

The prisoners of war are little more than boys, and their task is effectively a death sentence. Under the watchful eye of Sergeant Rasmussen, a bitterly contemptuous Danish soldier, they work for days without food. It’s confronting, but Rasmussen’s scorn is understandable, even while clashing with our ideas of how victors should behave.

The teenagers, meanwhile, know full well the cost of a slip-up. Their story is played out on a wire, and each day on the sand is accompanied by a breathless sense of tension. And I mean “breathless” literally – the guy sitting next to me kept gasping every time something suspenseful happened.

It’s accompanied by some masterful cinematography, with muted tones and wide angle shots capturing the windswept bluffs and shoreline. The camerawork makes the beaches seem almost peaceful, belying the danger that lurks beneath their sands.

Unfortunately, this central premise of Land Of Mine is where it starts to fall down. The tension is there, but after a while the threat of those hidden mines begins to lose its bite – like jump-scares in horror movies, once you know it’s coming, the shock feels slightly cheap and a little manipulative.

Zandvliet’s need to make an emotional impact on his audience also betrayed his original aim: to expose the darker parts of Danish history. The moral dilemma of the film comes down to Sergeant Rasmussen, a character who struggles to reconcile his bitter distaste for the German soldiers and his budding, almost paternal relationship with them. Rasmussen’s journey never dissolves into hokiness, but it reaches a point where it feels a little too moralistic, and the film’s message is a bit too clean.

Nevertheless, Land of Mine is very well done and ticks all the boxes of a brilliant war film. It begs questions about the morality of war from a perspective we don’t usually see, and Zandvliet reminds us that it requires humanity on all sides to make a hero.


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