DIR/WRI: Martin Zandvliet • PRO: Malte Grunert, Mikael Chr. Rieks • DOP: Camilla Hjelm • ED: Per Sandholt, Molly Marlene Stensgaard • DES: Gitte Malling • MUS: Sune Martin • CAST: Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman
It’s inarguable to suggest the current cultural climate is anything but divisive. For many people, this is an era of stark contrasts, unquestionable polarising opinions, and the ubiquitous adoption of the Us-versus-Them mentality in everything from politics to Jodie Whitaker’s casting in Doctor Who. With the controversial reception met with HBO’s new confederacy production this week, now seems like a simultaneously inappropriate and relevant moment for a film like Land of Mine to be made. Snubbed at this year’s Oscars for best foreign feature, it’s certainly not difficult to imagine the Danish film to be regarded as a Nazi sympathiser movie had it won.
Of course, Martin Zandvliet’s fourth feature film (which could easily be described as The Hurt Locker in WWII) is far more complicated narratively and thematically than simply inverting the tropes in depictions of Nazism. Set during May 1945, as the German occupation of Denmark draws to a close, a group of German boys are withheld from returning home in order to clear the minefields across the beaches of Denmark. Led morally by a young teenager named Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), the boys are supervised by a jaded and irascible Danish sergeant (Roland Møller; Atomic Blonde) who initially refuses to feed or assist the boys unless out of necessity.
It’s not difficult to imagine that the sergeant soon softens his stance with the young POWs, in a film that boils down to a tale of learning to see the humanity that lies beneath a person’s identity. Land of Mine (originally titled Under Sandet, meaning “Under the Sand”) carefully navigates its subject matter, choosing to distance its characters from association with Nazism as much as possible, except for the occasional visual cue when it’s thematically relevant. Its border between sympathy and empathy is a difficult line not to cross, particularly when Zandvliet intentionally makes the Danish army barbarous torturers in ways often reserved for the SS in war films. How willing a person is to overlook this particular complication depends on each person seeing the film, but the tension and quietly sombre mood helps elevate Land of Mine into an entertaining and brutal look into the aftermath of war.
The setting of a minefield easily lends itself into dramatically suspenseful moments, with each explosive accident feeling as startling and unpredictable as the next. Despite the unending feeling of tenterhooks during each sweeping of the mines, the cruelty and brutality enacted upon the adolescent boys is never forgotten between each scene. Whether it’s food poisoning or physical humiliations by the Danish, Zandvliet excellently spotlights the troubling atmosphere that creates a temperament where violence against others is not only considered acceptable but a normal part of everyday life.
This serious subject is made even better by its cast, particularly Roland Møller, whose ambiguous but intimidating presence easily slips between compassion and severity often within the same scene. As someone who dreads the possibility of seeing yet another war film, Land of Mine is a refreshing surprise that deserves its nomination at the Oscars simply by being humane, heartfelt, and shocking without feeling necessary to delve into the platitudes of glorifying heroics which can often bog down the genre as a whole. Its depiction of Nazism will undoubtedly be a point for discussion after viewing, but the film’s decision to delve into the morally grey areas of war serves as one of the many reasons Land of Mine exists to begin with.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Land of Mine is released 4th July 2017