Scenes of someone trying to defuse a bomb are old hat in movies, but though ubiquitous they can still be genuine nail-biters if skillfully choreographed with characters one cares about. Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet’s period drama—one of the nominees for the Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award this year—offers a succession of such sequences, and manages to generate a good deal of suspense, and empathy, from a tale based on actual historical events.
In 1944 the Nazis, anticipating that the Allied invasion of the continent might be concentrated on Denmark’s western coast, planted millions of land mines on the beaches. After the German surrender in 1945, the Danes, having suffered five years of harsh occupation, decreed that German POWs would clear the coast of the bombs. “Land of Mine” dramatizes the three months that a group of them—teens who had been conscripted into the army in the war’s waning days—must spend probing a swath of beach with iron rods to locate the bombs and then carefully defuse them. They are promised safe conduct back to Germany if they survive the job. The young men have receive rudimentary training in the task from disdainful Captain Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), who frankly has no care whether they will live or die, but they actually work under the watchful eye of Sergeant Rasmussen (Roland Moller), whose attitude is little different from his superior’s.
Inevitably the plot trajectory involves Rasmussen’s change of heart toward his charges as he watches them engaged in their dangerous work. And while he is the main character, and Moller inhabits the man with considerable feeling, in the process a few of the Germans are fleshed out to some extent as well. The most important is Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hofmann), the sensitive warrior who naturally assumes a leadership role among his fellows. But though most of the others remain rather sketchy figures, a few emerge more fully: Helmut Morbach (Joel Basman), whose cynicism undermines the hope Sebastian embodies, and twins Ernst and Werner Lessner (Emil and Oskar Belton), whose childlike timidity is matched only by their devotion to one another.
There is no doubt that the film is manipulative. The very act of placing these fresh-faced recruits in immediate danger—and watching them begging Rasmussen for food—is a calculated cinematic move, and the fact that any of them might be blown up at any moment (and many do, in fact, die)—is a tactic positively designed to elicit anxiety in the audience. And that’s only the beginning: a Danish woman (Laura Bro) lives nearby with a young daughter (Zoe Zandvliet) who has a tendency to wander, while Rasmussen has a beloved dog with a desire to roam. Imagine the possibilities. There’s also a twist at the close, when the promise of free return to Germany after three months is retracted.
But in this case the manipulation works, particularly because of the strong acting from Rasmussen and the starkly beautiful widescreen images crafted by Zandvliet and cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen (who at appropriate moments uses hand-held cameras for effect), abetted by the canny editing of Per Sandolt and Molly Malene Stensgaard. (Sune Martin’s score, which gives a major role to the cimbalom, is less impressive.) The film also brings attention to a little-known episode in which captured soldiers were clearly mistreated, however understandable the desire for retribution and poetic justice might have been at the time. That’s a valuable reminder for all viewers, and must have had a special effect on Danish audiences, who were compelled to face an episode in their history that’s hardly a noble one.
Probably the worst thing about “Land of Mine,” in fact, is the title that Sony Classics has chosen for the American release. The original Danish was “Under Sandet” (in German “Under den Sand”), or simply “Under the Sand.” Sony has elected to replace that elegantly suggestive title with a rather silly play on words—the land that Rasmussen proclaims is “mine” as he’s telling German soldiers to get out of it in the film’s prologue is also filled with their leftover landmines. Of course, Francois Ozon already used “Under the Sand” for his fine 2001 drama, so perhaps the change was made just to avoid confusion. Let’s hope so, because if someone thought he was being clever, he missed the mark.
It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t see the film, though.