Land of Mine: Enemy Empathy

*** (out of 4)

Land of Mine, a Danish film from director Martin Zandvliet, begins with a vent. It’s 1945, World War II has ended…and in Denmark, thousands of German POWs are being made to sorely regret that they fought for the Third Reich. When we open, Danish sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) is sitting in his vehicle as a group of them files by him in a slow procession. Out of the blue, he zooms down the line, swoops down on an unsuspecting soldier who happens to be carrying the Danish flag, and mercilessly beats him up. “This isn’t your flag! You’re not welcome here! Get lost!” He hurls these insults with the air of someone who’s been waiting all five years of the Nazi occupation for a chance to gloat. Yet his exaggerated intonation — you can tell he’s forcing himself to sound intimidating — and Zandvliet’s decision to let the fragile sound of Rasmussen’s breathing play over the opening credits both point to an element of softness beneath the surface. Under that scowling facade, in other words, there’s definitely something much more human.

Soon after this scene, Rasmussen is given the task that takes up the bulk of the movie’s remaining running time: supervising 14 POWs’ attempts to disarm and remove 45,000 mines from a beach on the west coast of Denmark. Defusing explosives, as 2009’s The Hurt Locker made fairly clear, is not a pleasant job — and in that spirit, Zandvliet manages to leave you squirming every time he focuses on a POW trying to remove a detonator. Yet no matter how many unexpected explosions there are (and there are several), the camera always makes clear its main interest lies not in these thrills but in Rasmussen and his attempts to reconcile the aforementioned tensions between the competing strands of his character. These POWs may be from a country that has just committed some of the worst crimes of the 20th century…yet as we see, they’re all young boys, none of them has any experience with disarming landmines, and the fact that some of them don’t even look as though they’ve been through high school suggests that they didn’t take up Hitler’s cause willingly. Rasmussen has to find a balance between his emotions and his military obligations — and while feelings eventually prevail, we see that they don’t exactly win in a walk. In his performance, Møller does a fine job showing his character’s goodness without ever being melodramatic or weepy; Zandvliet leaves Rasmussen’s arc a tad incomplete by omitting any details about what his role was during the war, but Møller nevertheless still succeeds in making the gradual victory of Rasmussen’s soft side feel eminently believable.

When you look beyond Møller’s powerful performance, Land of Mine unfortunately ends up falling frustratingly short in several areas. We never really get to know the 14 boys who find themselves forced to confront the tenuous line between life and death at far too young an age: Zandvliet makes a few stabs at development with some dialogue about finding girlfriends and opening restaurants, and one named Sebastian (Louis Hofmann) gets a particularly extensive amount of screen time, but they largely remain symbols, not actual people. The editing is occasionally unclear, which renders several parts of the story — a scene in the middle where superior officers harass the POWs, the scenes building up towards the end — far less affecting than they could be. And worst of all, the movie often ends up leaning on a variety of recycled tropes, such as the little animals the POWs play with to emphasize the fragility of life (a la the butterfly in All Quiet on the Western Front), the commanding officer (Mikkel Folsgaard) who makes you wanna shout “You’re an a**hole,” and a little girl who serves as the resident manifestation of the “innocent child” motif. This material certainly isn’t easy, but Zandvliet, like the boys he portrays, occasionally seems to want to cut corners instead of tackling the challenge head-on.

Still, all things considered, this movie is definitely worth a watch. Cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen deserves a special shout-out for her combination of wide shots of the serene seacoast landscape and close-ups of the characters’ faces, which imparts a dual message about the meaninglessness of conflict and the preciousness of life with far more elegance than the animals and little girl. And more generally, barring said clichés, Zandvliet usually manages to get his main points across without making you feel like he’s trying to dictate what you should think. Germans, as easy as it is to portray them as the great villains of the 30s and 40s, weren’t all mindless bullies, while the Allied forces, as the film makes all too clear, weren’t the flawless paragons of virtue that history has led us to believe. Through its willingness to twist the conventional view of World War II, the story succeeds in providing a jarring testament to the power and value of empathy. Everyone is human, after all — and as obvious as that idea may seem, this movie shows that we lose sight of it far too often.

***

Land of Mine (2015)

Country: Denmark/Germany. Dialogue in Danish, German, and (in one scene) English.

Starring: Roland Møller, Mikkel Følsgaard, Louis Hofmann

Running Time: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for violence, some grisly images, and language.”

Produced by: Malte Grunert, Mikael Chr. Rieks

Written & Directed by: Martin Zandvliet