What do aggressors owe to their victims if they lose a war? What sense of moral righteousness do the victims have over their oppressors after that victory?
In his 2015 historical drama Land of Mine, director-writer Martin Zandvliet presents a relatively obscure, but grim piece in the history of the Second World War that poses those above questions. Beginning in May 1945, German prisoners-of-war were forced to remove the miles of landmines that were placed on the Danish shores during the occupation to prevent Allied invasion. Land of Mine goes beyond the fraught, nerve-wracking suspense in which each sequence featuring the mine defusing is a precariously-held trigger. Equally fraught is Zandvliet wading into the ambiguous moral terrain. He questions the moment where the desire for retribution (however deserved and righteous it may seem) overcomes compassion and mutual understanding between people on opposite sides of the conflict. Land of Mine is a difficult but poignant film- at times beautiful though at times horrific. Unlike many films in its genre, Zandvliet attempts to be more self-critical of his own countries’ actions as he ventures bravely into the moral ‘gray zone’ that is often found in and after conflicts.
Assigned a small platoon of German POWs with clearing a beach of 42,000 mines, Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) is a harsh, unsympathetic taskmaster who with some satisfaction oversees the physically and psychologically torturous mission. ‘I don’t feel sorry for any of you’ he barks abruptly, staring down each recruit and then locking them into his cramped bunkhouse each night. However, as with us in the audience, Carl begins to look a bit closer at his recruits- young boys of no more than sixteen with little experience of clearing mines and longing to return home. As the boys face inevitable accidents when removing the equipment and disregard for their health by the higher military command, Carl’s antipathy, reclaimed national pride and commitment to duty begins to erode under his growing affection for them.
The moral uncertainty of Land of Mine comes primarily from the naturalistic performances of its cast. Møller is a captivatingly brittle presence, his violent introduction and severe glare from under his sinewy brows is later peppered with small acts of mercy and kindness. The boys (notably Louis Hoffman, Joel Basman, Oskar Bökelmann, Emil and Oskar Belton) capture their psychological traumas and youthful innocence: from trembling hands as they uncover the mines to their high-spirited aspirations when (of if) they return to their defeated country. While the phrase ‘if you’re old enough to go to war, you’re old enough to clear up the mess’ becomes a simple justification for the Danish military command, the actors’ sympathetic performances reinforces the more unsettling reality: that these are still merely boys caught up in war and made to pay for their countries’ actions. Is this right? It’s this ethical quandary that Møller’s quiet pensiveness captures so effectively and his clear trepidation in having professional admiration (and paternal warmth) for them. Not all of this defies obvious sentimentality, of course, with some characterisations and actions a bit overdone and foreseeable (characters who declare their futures are often the ones that don’t have one here). Neither the actors nor Zadvliet lets us forget, however, that all this exists on the edge- as easily withdrawn as waves pulled back on the sand.
Equally on the edge is each and every mine-defusing sequence. It’s a simple ploy, of course. Yet Zandvliet quiets Sune Martin’s mournful, strumming soundtrack so that the windy and creaking silences unexpectedly shatter when a mine goes off. There is a real sense that any moment on the shoreline we could witness an explosion. Often I was watching between my fingers, tensed on the seat, as I was when watching Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’s haunting Turtles Can Fly- which similarly featured young people clearing mines. Each death, when they inevitably come, is treated with raw visual and emotional intensity- absolutely devastating with the real horror coming through the shock, panic and confusion of the wounded and those trying to help. It is also remarkable how Zandvliet and cinematographer Camilla Hjelm are able to convey so much in their photography of the landscape itself- from the stark wide-shots of the dangerous, forbidding expanse of minefield to the overhead tracking that watches the boys bound and dance across the dunes in a rare, but earned, reprieve. This is not only a place that lacks compromise from its damage, the unspoken but pervasive trauma of a country, but also of hope and yearning for reconciliation.
It is perhaps easy to take the moral high ground if you win the war and reclaim your country, but Zandvliet is more self-critical of this posture in Land of Mine. While not a total indictment, his depiction is sharply questioning of the military’s actions and treatment of the POWs. In the epilogue crawl, it establishes clearly the historical truth that of those that cleared the mines ‘many were just boys’. The phrasing was interesting and telling to me. The ‘just’ epitomises the levelling stance that this Danish director wishes to make on his own country- however aggrieved it was after the German occupation. Land of Mine is a sensitive, deftly-made piece of cinema, one of the most probing in the genre, and the best historical war film I’ve seen this year.