One thousand and one war films serve to remind us of what we need never forget, that war is hell. Land of Mine, an important Danish drama from Martin Zandvliet, moves the genre forward by showing us that post-war can be agony, too.
Set in the aftermath of the Second World War as the five-year Nazi occupation of Denmark comes to an end, the taut film's first scene involves a Danish paratrooper who spots a German prisoner of war with a flag of Denmark tucked under his arm as a souvenir. Aching for any justification, the stern Dane (played by Roland Moller in the lead role) gives the German a furious beating, hurting his own fist in the process.
We watch him for days later, flexing his banged-up hand. Was it worth it, that payback?
The title Land of Mine not only refers to fierce possessiveness of geography, but also to the story of German POWs – boys here, mostly – who were forced to clear Danish beaches of buried explosives planted by the occupiers to discourage an Allied invasion. The dangerous job of detecting and removing the devices by hand can be seen as punishment; that half of the beach sweepers were killed or severely wounded was not an unforeseeable upshot.
Was it worth it, that revenge?
Tragic, tensely told and inspired by true events, Martin Zandvliet's story brings to light a past buried like bombs just below the surface. Beaches are breezy escapes, but in Land of Mine the usually safe place where the sea meets the sand is a killing field where the defeated are sacrificed in a grievous game of chance.
These are boys, not war criminals. Innocence is one more cost of fighting, but who is innocent?
At the centre of the picture and in the middle of the moral dilemma, Moller's stoic Sergeant Carl Rasmussen wrestles with himself all film long. Initially, he's tough on his motley crew of grubby boys and young men. Not tough in that gung-ho-but-heart-of-gold drill-sergeant sort of way, but tough because of his wounded soldier-patriot's pride. His country was invaded, occupied and liberated – all by foreign armies.
So while he wants his pound of flesh, this task is less than satisfying. The orders are as crooked as that beret on his head. And yet he's a soldier and the beach does have to be cleared, either by inexperienced Germans crawling on their bellies and poking the sand with sticks or by some other way.
Were there other ways? The film doesn't say. I think it should have.
The sergeant's relationship with his famished, trembling charges – including homesick twins and one natural leader who might have been his protégé under different circumstances – is complicated and takes twists. The role of the conflicted Dane calls for nuance, and Moller answers wonderfully.
Visually, this Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film has a winsome, washed-out sixties look, with wide angles of bucolic landscapes – serenity, interrupted by detonations.
Writer-director Zandvliet has crafted a handsome, affecting and questioning film about post-war revenge and forgiveness. On a tough field to navigate, he makes it to the other side, commendably.