Land of Mine [Under Sandet]

Martin Zandvliet
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Martin Zandvliet
Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman
Screening Date:
  • 15-Jan-2019
  • Categories:
    Drama, Historical, War

    Based on true events, this anti-war film is set in post-World War II Denmark. Young German POWs are forced to clear a beach with 1.5 million land mines, which leads to a situation that would be later be denounced as the worst war crime in Danish history.

    Film Notes

    Nothing focuses a film like the threat of a bomb going off. From Alfred Hitchcock's "Sabotage" to the Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," explosive devices that can detonate at any moment are intrinsically dramatic. "Land of Mine" makes good use of that plot mechanism, but it has a whole lot more going on as well.

    Denmark's selection for the best foreign language Oscar and a triple winner at the European Film Awards, "Land of Mine" is a classic wide-screen World War II epic but with a number of unsettling twists.

    Written and directed by Martin Zandvliet, "Land of Mine" takes place not during the war but just after it. And a key part of its plot involves not hardened combat veterans but young teenage boys, kids really, some no older than 15.

    These were members of the Volkssturm, a German national militia created late in the war when able bodies were scarce. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, these youngsters were made prisoners of war in Denmark, a country livid with rage against all things German after five years of occupation.

    Denmark was also a country where an enormous number of mines -- some 2.2 million, more than anywhere else in Europe -- were buried on the country's west coast because the German military feared an invasion of the continent might come through there.

    Now it is May 1945, and some 2,000 German prisoners of war, many of them those teenage boys, were made available to Denmark to remove those mines and the Danes did not hesitate to say yes.

    "Land of Mine" does not begin with anything bomb related, unless you count a veteran Danish soldier who so seethes with anger against the Germans it's close to terrifying to be in his presence.

    That would be Sgt. Carl Leopold Rasmussen (the able Roland Møller in his first leading role), introduced glumly watching a group of older German POWs marching past.

    Suddenly he sees one soldier trying to walk off with a Danish flag as a souvenir, and he goes ballistic, savagely attacking the man and screaming at him in German, "Get out, go home, this is not your flag."

    After we see Sgt. Rasmussen demarcating an area of Danish beach to be cleared of mines, we are introduced to circumspect officer Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Flosgaard, King Christian VII in "A Royal Affair") who trains the young boys who are going to do the dirty work.

    Teaching them first on disarmed mines and then using the real thing, Jensen curtly advises the boys not to waste time on self-pity. He canes them when they make mistakes, letting them know the error would have caused their death. He also tells them that "Denmark is not your friend, no one wants to see you here."

    Though the boys are rather an undifferentiated mass during training, by the time they are moved out to the coast and placed in the sergeant's ferocious care, we are able to tell the key members apart.

    Sebastian (Louis Hofmann) is the most mature, the de facto leader of the group, though the angry Helmut (Joel Basman) thinks he should be in charge. Wilhelm (Leon Seidel) is the most optimistic, while the twins Ernest and Werner Lessner (Emil and Oscar Belton, twins themselves) are full of plans for their postwar future.

    These boys are part of a group of 10 or so who are responsible for an area where 45,000 mines have been planted just underneath the surface. Once they find and defuse every last one of them, the sergeant promises while verbally terrorizing them like the drill master from hell, they can go home.

    Crisply and efficiently put together by writer-director Zandvliet, "Land of Mine" has the inherent edge-of-your-seat concern about what kind of damage the bombs will inflict on which of these boys, but it is the psychological qualities of the situation that hold the greatest interest.

    For though Sgt. Rasmussen can be ferocious, it proves challenging to treat boys young enough to be his sons as if they were hardened combat veterans. All kinds of plausible crises and wrenching situations arise as individuals on both sides of the equation wonder how much shared humanity there can be in a world where personal feelings are treated as traitorous or worse.

    KENNETH TURAN, Los Angeles Times, DEC 08, 2016.

    The obvious audiences for Martin Zandvliet’s heartfelt drama are Danes who seek the truth behind their country’s myths of wartime heroism, and Germans (the film is mostly shot in the German language) who might be drawn to examples of innocence or goodness in their nation’s years of shame.  This film could also tap into the huge audience for war epics, with a potential global reach thanks to its affinities with classics in that genre such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Grand Illusion, and Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land.

    At war’s end, some 1.5 million mines placed by the Nazis remained on Denmark’s west coast. Defusing them was a national urgency. Rather than use Danes who had sacrificed so much during the Nazi occupation, British liberators proposed that the Danish government deploy thousands of Wehrmacht POWs on Danish territory for the job. At least half of them died at that task from May to October 1945.

    Land of Mine isn’t the first account that suggests that the Danes committed a war crime. Nor is it the first examination of brutality against defeated Germans in 1945. What’s new is that those charges of Danish misdeeds are being brought to a wide audience in the language of epic cinema. Zandvliet (A Funny Man, 2011, Applause, 2009) picks up the story as a vengeful Danish officer assigns a stern sergeant (Moller) to manage a brigade of boy prisoners conscripted late in the war. Moller’s ox-like character makes that severity look a lot like sadism, until the cruelty of his British and Danish superiors and the deadliness of the job draw out his protective instincts.  

    Moller bulldozes his way from brutality to empathy, and the plot that probes the nuances of history soon veers into well-meaning inverted extremes of Allied evil and German innocence, as the prisoners operate under a potential death sentence and Danish commanders exploit captive labour.

    The depictions of vindictive Danes sending boys to be blown apart clashes with the accepted noble portrait of a country whose king refused to deport Jews from Denmark and wore a yellow star in protest. German soldiers portrayed as innocents who are as harmless as a kindergarten class may be a jolt to audiences accustomed to seeing them as invading predators and killers.  Yet the soldiers’ grim fate, borne out by the facts and observed at close range with a hand-held abruptness, keeps the film’s earnest sentimentality from over-flowing.

    Despite the sense of fatalism and some clumsy turns in Zandvliet’s script, Land Of Mine achieves moments of chilling suspense in scenes of untrained soldiers defusing mines by hand and in the bloody bodies that leap into the air when the boys fail.   

    The tension builds on the impressive composure of German and Swiss teenage actors (many of them already television veterans), including the endearing twins Emil and Oskar Belton – still not yet 16 – who play brothers who are captured in Germany’s dying days. With some adroit promotion, the young cast could be a strong selling point in German-speaking countries and beyond.

    The sand dunes of Denmark’s Skallingen peninsula (finally declared mine-free in 2012) are a huge canvas for cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, the director’s wife, who evokes a desert-like vastness reminiscent of a David Lean landscape for boys forced into a labour of futility. The motif of teenagers marching into those expanses drives home the grim truth that wars don’t end when the belligerent commanders declare the fighting to be over.

    DAVID D'ARCY, Screen Daily, 11th SEPTEMBER 2015