Land of Mine, the story of an awful war crime out now in cinemas across the UK, is devastating to watch, says Kevin Mahler
Denmark’s so-called biggest war crime forms the historical backdrop of this nerve-jangling bomb-disposal drama, a best foreign language film Oscar nominee that makes The Hurt Locker look like a Merchant Ivory tea party.
The year is 1945 and, responding to a British military decision, the Danish government has forcibly deployed two thousand German prisoners of war to the western coast of Denmark to begin the arduous and wildly dangers task of clearing 1.5 million landmines from the beaches by hand. Goodbye Geneva Convention, hello sudden death.
Written and directed by Martin Zandvliet, the film focuses on a small troop of traumatised teenagers- still in their tattered German army uniforms- and the brutal Danish sergeant, Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller), charged with clearing a sizeable chunk of Jutland’s Skallingen peninsula.
The opportunities for high-tension drama are seemingly obvious. As we get to know the soldiers- Helmut (Joel Basman) the tough one, Ernst (Emil Belton) the soft one, Louis (Sebastian Schumann) the smart one, and so on- the scenes of them inching their way, terrified, across the mine-laden beaches (they literally poke the sand with sticks) become increasingly difficult to stomach.
When the deaths do come, always without notice (“BOOM!”), the effect is never less than shocking and always upsetting.
And yet what’s truly remarkable about the film, and lifts it above an exploitation thrill ride, is that it also works as a nuanced drama and a delicate character portrait. Step forward Rasmussen, who as the film progresses begins to feel for the soldiers and bond with them. He starts calling them “my boys”, he saves them from a humiliating beating at the hands of some angry locals and he feels every loss in the minefield as a profound personal grief.
By the final act it seems to have shed the war film trappings almost completely and has instead become a touching meditation on fathers and sons, and on the primal urge in men to replicate that bond.
Moller’s performance is magnificent. Huge and brooding with swaggering echoes of John Wayne, he commands attention in every scene, but only because there are tantalising hints of softness and sweetness underneath. At one key point of near-savage degradation, he takes Louis aside and whispers softly: “Repeat after me, ‘It’s almost over. I’ll make it home.'” Devastating.
Kevin Mahler is a critic for The Times