Review: ‘Land of Mine’ brings an untold horror from WW II to light

TORONTO – Seventy years have passed since the end of World War II and, remarkably, filmmakers continue to find compelling new stories from the era.  This year alone has seen Simon Curtis” “Woman in Gold” and László Nemes” Cannes phenomenon “Son of Saul.”  Another relatively unknown true story is depicted in Martin Zandvliet”s Danish drama “Land of Mine” which had its world premiere tonight at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

At the end of the war, there were estimated to be between 1.4 and 2 million land mines buried on the western coastline of Denmark.  So many, in fact, that the Danish government wasn”t able to officially declare all of the beaches safe until 2012.  The mines were the legacy of the Nazis, who occupied Denmark from 1940 to 1945, and believed the Allies might stage their expected invasion of Europe along the country”s massive coastline.  They were wrong, of course.  D-Day took place on the beaches of Normandy, France and marked the beginning of the end of the Nazi empire.  Once the German Army was defeated, however, Denmark needed to excavate the still active mines from their shores.  They decided to use German POWs, many of whom were just teenagers, to do so.

Zandvliet, who also wrote the film”s screenplay, centers his drama on one contingent of youngsters who are told if they remove thousands of mines they will be sent home to Germany (although, they really didn't have a choice in the matter).  At first Sebastian, Helmut, Ludwig, Wilhelm and twins Ernest and Werner are trained to diffuse the bombs under the strict and vengeful Lt. Ebbe (“A Royal Affair”s” Mikkel Boe Følsgaard).  In a sequence that foreshadows the constant threat of death, each soldier is sent into a secure structure to diffuse a real bomb as a final test before being sent out to the field. Zandvliet plays this for all that it”s worth and if you weren”t sympathetic to these young men beforehand, the consequences of their making one little mistake will have you on the edge of your seat.

Soon, the POWs are transferred to a small barrack near a compromised beach.  They are put under the command of Sergeant Rasmussen (Roland Møller), a man who like Lt. Ebbe, has nothing but contempt for his new charges. Initially, he doesn”t care if his superiors refuse to provide rations for them until he realizes their wasting bodies won”t be able to complete the mission without some sustenance.  Ebbe, on the other hand, has no interest in feeding the youngsters, he clearly wants them to either die by starvation or be blown up by the mines.  The situation becomes so dire that Rasmussen has to steal food from Ebbe”s base to keep them alive.

As the film progresses, Rasmussen feelings about the POWs begin to change.  He no longer see his charges as soldiers who desecrated his country, but young boys drafted into service for a war they (might) have wanted no part of.   When they inevitably begin dying because of one accident or another his compassion for their plight overwhelms his anger over the occupation.  He also bonds with Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), one of the more natural leaders in the group who is doing whatever he can to keep his comrades sane as their numbers slowly dwindle.  And, for a brief moment, it appears the boys will make it through and Rasmussen has come to peace with his hatred for their mother country.  But, alas, circumstances make it all too brief.

“Land of Mine” is pretty straightforward filmmaking from Zandvliet and I mean that as a compliment.  Unlike other directors, he smartly doesn”t overdramatize the obvious because he doesn”t have to.  The characters are so well drawn (and the relatively young cast steps up to the plate) that combined with the material”s natural tension you”ll find yourself riveted to the proceedings.  

In many ways “Land of Mine” plays out like a slightly skewed horror movie. The boys may have been drafted into the German army and they may have been puppets of the Nazis, but you still want them to navigate the minefield and make it home alive.  And when the title cards tell you that half the POWs forced to diffuse the mines died doing so?  That”s when the larger point Zandvliet is trying to make truly comes into focus.  Perhaps the good guys weren't really that “good” at all.

“Land of Mine” has not been acquired yet for U.S. distribution, but will likely be Denmark”s submission for the Foreign Language Film Academy Award.