It has to be said: ‘Land of Mine’ is an awful, punny English title for the Danish war film ‘Under sandet’ (literally ‘Under the Sand’). Based on actual events and deservedly nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 89th Academy Awards, puns do this disturbing, disquieting and devastating piece of cinema an injustice.
In May of 1945, during the close of World War II, the western coast of Denmark was crawling with defeated Nazi troops. Most of them were just forcibly conscripted young boys, as Germany’s more battle-hardened soldiers were long depleted. We are introduced to twelve young Germans, tasked by the Allies with removing 45,000 of the estimated two million land mines that the German armed forces buried in the sand in preparation for an invasion that never came. These troops are overseen by Danish Sergeant Rasmussen, played by Roland Møller, (‘A Hijacking’, ‘The Shamer’s Daughter’), who we first meet as he brutally beats a German soldier for handling the Danish flag.
The boy soldiers are given a basic rundown on the types of mines they’re likely to encounter and how to defuse and discard them. But to Rasmussen and the Danes, a disarmed land mine is of more worth than a live Nazi, and these boys are merely human minesweepers. As the sergeant tells them early on, “If you clear eight mines an hour, you can return to your homes in six months.”
The use of German children for post-World War II minesweeping has been declared by many historians as the worst case of war crimes ever conducted by the Danish state. Specifically, it is explicitly forbidden in the Geneva Conventions that any Prisoner of War be forced to perform dangerous and/or unhealthy labour. It is believed that over 2,000 German soldiers were forced to remove mines, and nearly half of them lost their lives or limbs.
The film challenges the audience's perception of Hitler’s troops – these are just children, scared, starving, and desperate to go home. As they literally crawl along the beach, gently poking small metal rods into the sand in hopes of detecting a land mine without actually tripping it, ‘Land of Mine’ gradually reveals itself as one of the most unbearably suspenseful modern anti-war films.
Much of this suspense hinges on the treacherous work at hand and the way director Martin Zandvliet (‘A Funny Man’, ‘Teddy Bear’) - who also wrote the script - inserts small moments of humanity and uses character development to telegraph the moments of tragedy. We become invested in the boys as they discuss their past and their plans for the future... then they are back on the beach, prodding away at buried explosives. Audiences will find themselves startlingly conflicted when the “little boys,” as Sergeant Rasmussen refers to his prisoners, are inevitably blown to pieces, evaporated or horribly maimed as they progress.
‘Land of Mine’ gradually reveals itself as one of the most unbearably suspenseful modern anti-war films.
The film was shot at historically authentic locations, including in Oksbøllejren and areas in Varde, and the war-pocked landscape of Denmark is effectively captured with earthy, desaturated colour tones. Camera-work is hand-held, but there is no nausea-inducing jerkiness - scenes are permitted to play out at their desired pace. The longer the camera lingers on the defusing process, the more suspenseful the film becomes. Every sequence on the beach is compelling and handled with patience, with each explosion reverberating with the audience and all of the impacts deeply felt. Further enhancing the tense atmosphere is the poignant score that surfaces at the appropriate time.
The actors playing the German troops are excellent across the board, particularly twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Belton), who fantasise about the bricklaying business they’re going to start once they get back to Germany. Actor Louis Hofmann (‘Tom Sawyer’, ‘Alone in Berlin’) also makes an impression as Schumann who, as the de facto leader of the group, shows remarkable courage in trying to appeal to Sergeant Rasmussen’s humanity. The stand-out is Moller as Rasmussen, a furious bulldog of a man, all corded neck veins bulging eyes and spittle-flecked bellowing, who gradually develops a grudging respect for his young charges as they perform their fatal, endless task of defusing millions of buried mines.
Aside from a few slightly predictable story beats and an unusually optimistic moment that doesn’t ring entirely true to the grim story that preceded it, Zandvliet has masterfully created a suspenseful, sorrowful and memorable tale about what makes us human and why it's even more important to stay as one in times of bitter conflict.