Still from “Land of Mine.” Sony Classics.
As World War Two came to an end, Denmark was faced with the task of clearing thousands of mines that the Nazis had planted in the beaches of the country’s west coast in expectation of an allied landing that took place instead at Normandy. The clean-up job was made simple by the availability of 2000 German POW’s who were ordered to crawl across the beaches with a simple metal rod that would be plunged into the sand to detect one of the 1.5 million hidden mines. If a Nazi beast blew himself up in the process, it would be like killing two birds with one stone. Had Quentin Tarantino made such a film, it would have been a real laugher with body parts flying everywhere, especially if he used 3D.
In “Land of Mine,” Danish director Martin Zandvliet has defied conventional thinking on this historical episode and made the best narrative film I have seen this year, one that I recommend highly to CounterPunch readers. It opens on Friday at Laemmle’s in Los Angeles and at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza in New York with a national rollout soon to follow.
The film has the same white-hot intensity as the 1953 “Wages of Fear” classic that had a couple of men driving trucks filled with dynamite up a treacherous mountainous road to be used to stanch an out of control oil well fire. Yves Montand, one of the drivers, carries out his assignment with great aplomb while his partner is paralyzed by fear. As each obstacle is faced on their way up the mountain, the tension mounts.
Defusing a bomb has the same sort of built-in drama. I found myself covering my eyes every time one of the Nazi POW’s was unscrewing a fuse. If you understandably don’t care much about whether such people live or die, be prepared to have your expectations turned upside down as the film progresses.
Between 1942 and 1944 Germany built the Trump-like Atlantic Wall designed to thwart an Allied invasion from Great Britain. This was a massive system of fortifications along the coast of continental Europe and Scandinavia with Denmark expected to be a likely landing for invasion forces. The country had more landmines per square foot than any other location along the entire European coast.
Written by the director, the screenplay has the audacity to accurately portray the Germans as teenagers who had been dragooned into service toward the end of the war to replace the seasoned troops annihilated in Russia. Like Yves Montand, who sought nothing more except to live for another day and enjoy the reward he got for delivering the dynamite, these boys wanted nothing more except to go home and pick up where they left off.
They follow the orders of Sergeant Rasmussen (Roland Møller), who like the heroes of “Inglourious Basterds” hates Nazis with a visceral intensity. In an early scene, German POWs trudge along under his watchful eye. After he spots one of them carrying a folded German flag, he charges up and beats him mercilessly.
When he first addresses the handful of teenagers on their first morning at the beach, he lets them know in no uncertain terms that he does not care if they live or die. If they clear the beach of the mines, they can go back to Germany. But while they are under his command, they must follow his orders to the letter.
You find yourself beginning to hate Rasmussen who embodies military authority in his every word and gesture. As accustomed as he is to blindly following a chain of command that when one of the boys devises a simple tool to help them scan for mines more safely, he tosses it aside and orders them to proceed per usual. When one of them is killed in an accident and the sergeant is confronted by the reality of mangled body parts, he relents and allows them to use the device. He rationalizes this to himself as an efficient use of resources rather than becoming soft on Nazism.
In a further act of what might appear to be unjustified kindness, he decides to challenge his commanding officer by absconding with bread and potatoes from a Danish base to bring back to the boys who are on the edge of starvation. In total desperation, they had broken into a barn near the beach and fed on raw oats that made them sick to their stomach. After the woman who owns the barn tells the sergeant that there were rat feces in the oats, she laughs and shrugs it off as just desserts for the Nazis. Once again he rationalizes providing food as necessary to give them the strength to risk their lives on the killing ground, like feeding cattle destined for the slaughter.
It is the callousness of his countrymen and the obvious innocence of the boys under his commend that finally convinces Rasmussen to break with the narrative of “Good Danes versus Evil Germans”. In an act of rebellion that is about as powerful an antiwar statement I have seen in a film in recent years, he decides to make an existential and political choice that brings this powerful film to its conclusion.
In addition to its exceptional writing and acting, the cinematography is stunning. In the press notes, Zandvliet credits the Maysles brothers for providing the model for how he filmed his characters: “The way the Maysles brothers filmed their subjects was so vulnerable and sensuous that you could not help feeling the presence of their characters. It is a beautiful and rare thing when that happens. Intellectual analysis never kicks in. This only happens when you are fully engaged with the human beings you are watching and in the feeling of the scene.”
We learn from the press notes of “Land of Mine” that the German POWs depicted in the film were not properly trained for defusing mines. Many belonged to the Volkssturm, a militia Hitler created towards the end of the war to conscript the very young, including some who were 13 years old.
Dragooning Germans to defuse mines was a violation of a 1929 Convention signed by European powers. By calling the POWs “voluntarily surrendered enemy personnel”, the Danes flouted the rules of the Convention.
In 64 countries around the world today, there are approximately 110 million undetonated landmines. Since 1975, they have killed more than one million people. Per the UN, the only way to deactivate a landmine is by individual removal at a cost of between $300-1000 per mine. The best way to avoid such a staggering loss of wealth and life is, of course, to abolish the wars that enable their use, a project for the ages given the increasingly bellicose world we live in.