A tough-looking sergeant – the type of guy you’d look at once and know not to mess with – is driving his jeep past a long line of German prisoners of war. It’s Denmark, right at the end of World War II, and the sergeant spots, among the shuffling line of prisoners, one who is carrying a Danish flag.
The Danish sergeant backs up the jeep, gets out and starts pummeling the souvenir taker in the face. As he hits him – almost kills him – he is saying, “This is my country.” And from this first scene in “Land of Mine,” we understand something very quickly: We understand the rage that comes of having your country occupied by a hostile power.
This is something we as Americans have never experienced, but we can feel it in that moment. Imagine being as tough as that sergeant, but being from a helpless country. And imagine a bunch of foreigners rolling in with tanks and imposing barbarism and inhumanity for years. You might want to pummel somebody, too. And if you were that kind of guy, you probably would.
It’s against this background that we get this fact-based drama, which was nominated for the Academy Award for foreign film. Apparently, the Germans – wrongly thinking that the Allied invasion might come through Denmark – buried some 2 million land mines along the beaches of Denmark’s west coast. And so, following the war’s end, the British and Danes forced 2,000 German prisoners of war to locate and defuse those land mines ... by hand.
So here we have a horrible human situation in which we understand both points of view. On the one hand, we have the Allies thinking, “You planted them. You get them out.” You have a people anticipating their children running on the beach and getting dismembered. You have an entire coastline rendered unusable. On the other hand, you have these pathetic German kids – some of them underage teens conscripted in the last desperate phase of the war – who are victims of Hitler almost as much as the Allies.
The sergeant becomes the commander of a small group of German prisoners. He trains them in how to defuse these bombs, tells them their daily quota and then watches, from a safe distance, as they go about their work. As played by Roland Moller, the sergeant is a formidable guy who wants to hold onto his contempt for these Germans. But he doesn’t have the eyes or the face of a brute. He doesn’t have a Nazi butcher’s capacity to turn off his own humanity.
Needless to say, “Land of Mine” – the Danish title: “Under the Sand” – is a very tense experience. The notion of defusing a land mine is so potent that it has become a metaphor for any delicate situation with possibly dangerous consequences. But realities are more intense than metaphors, and so the audience sits and shares (some of) the stress.
Yet this is something curious, and a mark of the storytelling skill of writer-director Martin Zandvliet: Though there are explosions in “Land of Mine,” every explosion is a surprise. It’s like a magician’s trick. We think we’re watching both his hands at all times, but he keeps outguessing us, and this outguessing serves an important function. With a task like this, there’s no such thing as routine and not one moment that is safe.
This is the stuff of nightmares, but also of powerful drama.
‘Land of Mine’
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman.
Writer-director: Martin Zandvliet.
Running time: 100 minutes. In Danish with English subtitles.
Rating: R (violence, some grisly images, and language).