Land of Mine
2017, R, 100 min. Directed by Martin Zandvilet. Starring Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Emil Belton, Oskar Belton.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 17, 2017
In May of 1945, the sandy beaches along the western coast of Denmark were crawling with defeated Nazi troops. Most of them were just forcibly conscripted young boys, as Germany’s more battle-hardened soldiers were long depleted. In this Oscar-nominated Danish production, these young Germans, 12 of them, have been tasked by the Allies with removing 45,000 of the estimated 2 million land mines that their Nazi occupiers buried in the sand in preparation for an invasion that never came. Overseen by bearish Danish Sergeant Rasmussen (Møller), who is in turn overseen by a British colonel, the soldiers are given a basic rundown on what types of mines they’re likely to encounter and how to defuse and discard them. But to Rasmussen and the Danes, a disarmed land mine is of more worth than a live Nazi. And that’s where director Martin Zandvilet gets you: As much as we revile Hitler’s sick dream and in turn the soldiers that carried it out, these flesh-and-blood minesweepers are just kids, scared, starving, and dying to go home, literally. As the sergeant tells them early on, “If you clear eight mines an hour, you can return to your homes in six months.” As the captives literally crawl along the beach, gently poking small metal rods into the sand in hopes of detecting a land mine without actually tripping it, the masterful Land of Mine slowly, almost without notice, transforms into one of the most viscerally intense anti-war films since Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.
Much of the suspense here hinges on the treacherous work at hand, but the actors playing the Germans are across the board excellent, particularly twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Belton), who fantasize about the bricklaying business they’re going to start once they get back to Germany. (An excellent plan, considering the Allied bombing of the Fatherland.)
Comparisons to The Hurt Locker are unavoidable given the subject matter, but Land of Mine is the better film, and quite possibly an instant classic. Zandvilet, who also wrote the script, inserts small moments of humanity throughout what is easily the most nerve-racking, intense film of the year thus far. Audiences will find themselves startlingly conflicted as the “little boys,” as Sgt. Rasmussen refers to his prisoners, are inevitably blown to bits or horribly maimed as they progress. That’s called empathy. If there’s one thing the movies have taught pop culture, it’s that Nazis are always the bad guys. Here, they’re just children, inching ever closer to the end.