'Land of Mine'
There are many ways to do a movie about the insane human cost of war that don’t involve a second of combat. Robert Altman’s ‘M*A*S*H’ famously substituted gory operation scenes in favor of gun battles to unsettling effect. Now, Danish filmmaker Martin Zandvliet has done something similar (though with about absolutely no laughs) with the Oscar-nominated ‘Land of Mine’, a landmine removal picture set shortly after World War II.
‘Land of Mine’ is about a group of young boys. Teenagers. Nazis. They were Hitler Youth deployed into combat at an irrationally young age by the Nazi regime as the war took its toll on the able-bodied German population. Now they’re prisoners and the Danish military has decided to deploy the teenage P.O.W.s on an impossible task. They’re to manually find and remove millions of landmines buried across the Danish shore. The task is pretty much guaranteed to cause casualties, especially amongst a team of inexperienced youngsters.
The film comes from the P.O.V. of the Danish sergeant (Roland Møller) assigned to supervise the assignment. It plays out about how you’d expect. At first, he shows no sympathies for these Nazi prisoners. Then, he gradually realizes that they’re still boys far from home who had no interest in the atrocities and politics that brought them here. That’s when things get tough for everyone.
Finding ways to make audiences empathize with Nazis isn’t exactly a new trick in the art film playbook. (Jean Renoir got there a loooooooooong time ago with his masterpiece ‘The Grand Illusion’, and ‘Downfall’ even humanized Hitler). However, it’s still a quite intriguing and relevant theme to explore. Especially in such politically polarized times, it’s easy to dismiss and loathe anyone with an even remotely opposing opinion. No one sympathizes with Nazis, and it’s easy to forget that they’re human beings. In ‘Land of Mine’, Zandvliet explores that theme and uses that trick to devastating effect.
The film is a brutal emotional experience. The kids (though well played by the young cast) are deliberately vague. They’re defined by simple traits because they’re barely developed as people, thrust into war before they had a chance to grow. Obviously, a movie designed around mine removal is a suspense delivery system, but it becomes clear pretty quickly just how commonly mistakes will be made. The question isn’t when one of the boys will go boom-boom, but if any of them will survive.
So much of the drama in the piece is rooted in the sergeant’s reaction. His relationship to his prisoners is ever-changing, his sympathies ever-tested. Møller is brilliant as the complicated man given an impossible task, conveying a variety of emotions in mostly quiet contemplation. His exhaustion is visible early and often. It’s hard not to join him.
The worst part about ‘Land of Mine’ is the lame pun chosen for the English title, which undermines the solemn nature of the piece for a cutesy sales tactic. The second worst part is that as complex as the emotions and themes of the film might be, it’s ultimately a rather simple movie. Once the setup is established, the draining experience plays out exactly as expected. Yes, it’s all wonderfully acted and filmed, but it can often feel like a long short film stretched to feature length.
Still, this is a powerful work that deserves its Oscar nomination. It isn’t a particularly profound film, but it’s a fascinating viewing experience that explores timeless themes about war and recovery. It’s worth seeking out for those who enjoy the particular brand of depression frequently flogged by the Danish film industry.