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Land of Mine
It is 1945 and we are on the coast of Denmark. World War II has just ended after six years but its torment lingers. Along the country’s bleak but beautiful wind-swept west-coast beaches are buried more than one million mines laid by the Germans in preparation for an Allied invasion that never came. Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) has been assigned the task of leading a team to locate and defuse them with their bare hands.
That team consists of fourteen boys, forcibly conscripted by the invading Nazis late in the war. to bolster the enemy’s dwindling numbers as innocent pawns, victims instead of aggressors. The young POWs have to clear a beach of an estimated 45,000 explosives. If they can manage six each per hour, Sgt. Rasmussen tells them, they’ll be free to go home in six months. As played by 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 totally turn off his own humanity.
After half an hour of brutal punishment and suspense, the writer-director Martin Zandvliet lets the characters of the boys emerge and the sergeant begins to see them as we do - victims of circumstance: a bunch of clueless recruits who have seen little of war or life. He slowly switches strategy from ruthless slave driver to something approximating tough-love He is still often brutal but not without heart. For example, he keeps getting drawn into conversations with Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), the most charismatic of the boys. The kid is not trying to garner sympathy – he’s just reaching out for some human contact. He even eagerly suggests using a wooden frame to help the work go faster. (The sergeant brushes aside the pitch, but in the next scene we see it’s been quietly implemented.)
What’s poignant about his transformation is that the boys never guess just how lonely this professional soldier is. (We are left to imagine what ravages the war has made on his personal life.). Zandvliet doesn’t waste time with detailed back-stories; he doesn’t have to. When your country has been occupied by the savage Third Reich for five years, you don’t need a particular reason to look world-weary and act cynically.
Much of the suspense hinges on the treacherous work at hand, and each of the actors portraying the German boys is 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 home to Germany. Hofmann’s Sebastian is also a standout. Intelligent and pragmatic he has the maturity to understand Sgt. Rasmussen as a man who is under the yoke of duty. The role of this conflicted Dane calls for nuance, and Moller - a Robert Duval look-alike - is very impressive.
As the captive German boys literally crawl along the beach, gently poking small metal rods into the sand in hopes of detecting a land mine without actually tripping it, Land of Mine slowly, almost without notice, transforms into a most viscerally harrowing anti-war movie. This Oscar-nominated Best Foreign Language film about the cost of war and its continuing damage to humanity is sensitive and sympathetic and a plea for humanity in all of us. That title? Yes, in English it is obviously a play on words. The original Danish title is “Under sandet,” literally. 'Under the Sand.”
Inspired by real but oft-forgotten events.
In Danish and German, with English subtitles. Highly recommended. More on IMDB