Land of Mine

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Review by © Jane Freebury

A rag-tag bunch of German soldiers, some barely men. A beautiful beach on the Danish coast, and it’s spring. Now that the war is over, is it time for them to head home to their families, and live the dreams that kept them going? Not quite yet. First, they have to clean up the mess their army left behind. Underneath the pure white sands, the beach is riddled with land mines.

During World War II, the German army planted mines all along the European coastline and with landfall in Denmark so close to Berlin, it anticipated the Allies would land there. In the end, of course, the Allies opted for a landing in France, leaving the evil ordnance under Danish beaches undisturbed for the time being.

Up to 2,000 German soldiers were conscripted to do the clean up. It is not entirely clear how old they were, what kind of action they had seen beforehand, or whether they were in any sense ‘volunteers’ for this fearful work. It is hard to imagine any were, though who knows what sleight-of-hand was involved.

The writer-director of this powerful drama, Martin Zandvliet, has chosen to focus on the resolution of this dreadful situation, an evil dilemma, in very human terms rather than investigate it forensically. With his young, innocent looking actors, Zandvliet proposes that the mine clearers were too young to be guilty of Nazi atrocities, and were conscripted into the task of mine clearance illegally. Their youth and vulnerability make watching the scenes of them prone on the sand detecting and defusing the mines gingerly, one-by-one, often excruciatingly difficult, even in the safety and comfort of a darkened cinema. Who will the grim reaper select as his next victim in this dreadful game of chance?

Against a setting of stark natural beauty, Zandvliet has created a drama from bare essentials, so the performances really count. The actors are often shot in close up and are very convincing, including Roland Moller as the Danish sergeant in charge of the young men, the most difficult role. I did, however, wonder if the characters did full justice to the complex and conflicting emotions that must swamp former combatants at the end of hostilities.

In 1945, it was against the Geneva Convention to expose prisoners of war to dangerous or unhealthy work. It may be that Denmark contravened this, along with the British command, despite a record of heroic resistance to Nazi activities in relation to its Jewish people. Perhaps we can never know the full story now.

Light on facts, it is nonetheless a powerful drama of rapprochement, opting for empathy rather than analysis in a familiar terrain of having to carry out orders that contravene humanity. In some ways, it seems like a cop out. In others, it seems like the only way forward.

Land of Mine – what a good title – joins impressive drama we’ve seen from Denmark in recent years. Films like The Hunt and Brothers and television like The Bridge that have the courage to get themselves involved in daunting moral complexity. Denmark has some form in this space.

Where does responsibility lie? It’s a fair question. What would an EU have done about the problem in 1945?

A Danish-German production from 2015, Land of Mine has finally reached Australia.

4 Stars

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle