Review: Land of Mine
War films are difficult for many reasons; the term "anti-war film" is thrown around so much that it seems to define anything that's not propaganda. Should you look up "anti-war movies", usually titles such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket pop up - great movies that certainly convey the universally applicable message of "war is hell, " but the execution is too frequently reliant on the misplaced notion of passion equated by pain.
While there's no denying the power of staple titles in the genre, it's important to examine the way different nations reflect on the mournful nature of the subject.
This year's winner for the Best Foreign Language category at the Oscars will most likely be Toni Erdmann, as was the case last year with Son of Saul. Among the nominees in the 2016 ceremony, Thomas Lindholm's aptly titled A War proved to be an insightful movie that deservedly earned its title as an anti-war film. This year, the Danish submission Land of Mine delves into the psychological tumult and dehumanization of warfare, and most importantly does so without wallowing in heroism and relentless bloodshed.
In concert with most movies of this type, Land of Mine is inspired by actual events, writer-director Martin Zandvliet had the foresight to craft a fictional derivative into the story, giving it ethical dimension and emotional breathing room. Following the surrender of Germany to the Allied nations; the remnants of Germany's army, mainly consisting of teenage boys (attributed to the Third Reich absorbing anyone for their dwindling conquest) are enlisted in the highly dangerous task of removing anywhere up to two million landmines Germany planted on the shores of Denmark. These unequipped, emaciated young soldiers are faced with dangerous circumstances - that of their countries making.
My only gripe with Land of Mine is the title; despite relating to the story (too directly) "Land of Mine" sounds like a folk song/pun, as if there's a tagline that reads "get it?". What if Hamburger Hill were called "The Whopper"? This clunky misnomer likely chalks up to distribution, which is more befuddling because in Danish "Undet Sandet" translates to "Under the Sand." This contrivance aside, it's an authentic and intelligent movie that thoroughly explores the internal and external anguish of war while eschewing heroic brutalism that so often mars movies of this type.
Opening with hordes of defeated German soldiers trudging their way from combat, we see Danish Sgt. Carl Leopold Rasmussen, leering at the lines of the now disarmed former aggressors. Once he hones in on a German soldier carrying a Danish flag, Rasmussen dispatches a ruthless beating on him; as if to say "my country is not your fucking souvenir" - a powerful introduction to say the least. Carl's actions indicate a sundry of interpretive backstory; whether he is motivated by loss or injury, his retribution as a pugilist could solely be attributed to being a dedicated sergeant with a hair trigger temper and a chip on his shoulder.
Depending on your point of view, Rasmussen seems to be the best, or worst candidate to lead the POW's on this deadly endeavor, after all, why should the people of Denmark die from German landmines; shouldn't they answer for their actions? Instead of obvious black-and-white moralism of lesser war films, Land of Mine explores the grievances of WWII in a human way that provokes active (suspense) and passive (morality) attendance on our part with specificity in historical urgency. For once, "based on a true story" isn't just an excuse to wallow in violence.
Writer-director Martin Zandvliet tactfully reimagines history by balancing creative license and authenticity throughout this intelligent story whose only crutch is that the subject is greater than fiction. The contextual advantage of Land of Mine lies in its ability to create, what is commonly referred to as "the fog of war," something that movies of this type skitter to find in murky exposition, or misplaced attempts of "depth” (that gawkishly conceived scene of family role-play in Fury comes to mind) often wander into ineptitude.
Here, the war is over; there's nothing left but people, not symbols thus accelerating the process of reconciliation. Do we heal our wounds by tasking yesterday's enemy with the suicidal mission of mine removal, or arrive at the conclusion the there's no satisfying end to the devastation of war? Land of Mine doesn't pose, but suggest us to ponder unanswerable "big" questions, without imposing on itself to try and do so.
Zandvliet's clearly dedicated to this story, and it becomes very much a survival tale for the camp of German soldiers, navigating the rudimentary and unpredictable act of mine deactivation. Something as simple as a lengthy stick (to prod through sand) and ways map units of measurement become vital, while they mostly operate with their bare hands. It might sound reductive to say that the process is a device for suspense, but there are white-knuckle moments that will have you climbing the walls.
Narrative construct dictates the direction of the film at times but in contrast to the larger scope of war films, Land of Mine rewrites our peripheral context by taking us out of the "good vs. bad" arena, presenting an original story.
Aside from the dumb title, Martin Zandvliet's Land of Mine is an original and intense treatment of deceptively familiar material, well directed and acted, especially from Roland Møller as Sgt. Rasmussen.