“If you’re old enough to go to war, you’re old enough to clean up your mess.” This is the sentiment uttered in contempt by Lt. Ebbe Jensen in regard to a company of German soldiers held in Denmark in the immediate aftermath of WWII. It is also the crux of Land of Mine, the third film from Danish filmmaker Martin Zandvliet and nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2017 (Beaten by Iran’s The Salesman).
Forced to stay and sweep the Danish coastline for landmines, the group of mostly teenagers subsist on little to no food and full days crawling along the beach, prodding just below the sand under the stern leadership of Sgt. Carl Rasmussen, who opens the film by brutally attacking a German soldier and proudly announcing this to be “his land”. This sets the tone and the soldiers are told not to expect a warm welcome from the Danish people, and by a Mother scolding her young daughter for speaking to them, saying “I told you not to go near the Germans.”
From the outset, the soldiers are told as soon as the beach is cleared, they will be free to return home to Germany. Hope for a quick journey home is quickly dashed, as they are set a target of each clearing six land mines an hour, which will see them home in three months’ time. This serves as a devastating blow to both the soldiers and the audience watching.
In a film about sweeping for landmines, it would be very easy to inject tension only through a will-the-mine-blow-up-or-not focus, but Land of Mine manages to steer clear of this through cleverly written characters at odds with each other and their environment. Landmines do explode, however, but never when you’re expecting it. This results in a few jump-scares, but it never feels cheap, which is a credit to the cast, who make every tense moment surrounding a landmine believable, and the few mishaps utterly heartbreaking and genuinely difficult to watch, none more so than one of the younger boys screaming for his mother as his comrades either try to calm him, or stand paralyzed in shock.
As the Sergeant begins to empathize and warm to the soldiers, risking getting himself into trouble from his superiors in the process, the soldiers begin to lose trust in one another and in the Sergeant’s promise of a return home after the work is done, adding a layer of paranoia and further tension, as if the situation didn’t warrant enough anyway.
Land of Mine is about nationalism in the face of war, and how it is juxtaposed against basic human emotions, such as empathy and compassion. It is a grueling, ugly, at times unwatchable work. It is a terrible, heart wrenching film that puts you in the palm of the characters’ hands without asking, and it sticks with you long after you leave the cinema. You need to see it.
Land of Mine is showing now at Cinema Nova.