Like baby tortoises crawling toward the sanctuary of the sea, the young men in Land of Mine creep on their bellies across the sand, also trying to get home. But this beach is on the western shore of Denmark, and the men’s home is far south, in Germany.
These dozen or so soldiers, barely more than boys, have been detained as POWs in the days following the end of World War I. That’s because, years ago, their homeland, speculating that the Allies would attempt invasion on the long Danish coast (rather than at Normandy), seeded the sands with more than 1.5 million land mines. Who better to discover and defuse these mutilating bombs than soldiers from the country that put them there?
Herded into a bare-bones wooden bunkhouse lodged in the dunes, the boys are overseen by the Danish Sgt. Rasmussen (Roland Møller, who’s terrific). He’s not exactly interested in bonding with these guys. “Do you think I feel sorry for you?” he barks when one of them points out that no one has given them any food for days. “I don’t care if you croak.”
And croak, some of them do — quickly and bloodily. (It’s not a spoiler to acknowledge that, yes, some of those mines detonate, and no, not all of the German soldiers make it home.) At its best, Land of Mine musters the nail-biting tension of such other war-related films as The Hurt Locker and Das Boot. Also, like those earlier films, Land (the original Danish title translates as the less punny Under the Sand) is ultimately less an action movie than a psychological study of the changes wartime inflicts on men.
The young Germans sustain themselves with dreams, or fantasies, about the lives they will lead when they get home — as mechanics or masons, say, courting beautiful young women. Anything to keep their minds off the tedious work that could end their lives in one loud second.
The greater psychological focus is on Sgt. Rasmussen. We watch as, reluctantly, he starts to feel compassion for these boys, his country’s uniformed enemies — though at first it’s clear he values the well-being of his pet dog more than he does theirs. Eventually, the sergeant will risk his own reputation, and possibly more, in his dealings with his Danish superiors.
If you have a hard time distinguishing among all the young soldiers, don’t worry. You’re not supposed to. Not all are given equal attention. The angelic-Aryan Sebastian (Louis Hofmann) and the runty-looking Helmut (Joel Basman) are the main representatives of the Germans, with some of the others — including an endearing pair of twin brothers, played by Emil and Oskar Belton — taking focus at times.
Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this year (Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman won), Land of Mine is the sort of movie that most often gets picked by the Academy. It’s earnest, historic, with valuable things to say about the horror and futility of war, and the importance of recognizing a greater family of man than the one that’s defined solely by national identity.
Writer-director Martin Zandvliet has made a clean, compelling, sometimes unnerving work. It doesn’t have the moral or visionary power of other war movies — the ones mentioned earlier, as well as classics like Paths of Glory or Gallipoli. Still, until we stop sending boys like the ones in Land into unending battle, it’s the sort of movie that will, sadly, need retelling again and again.
Land of Mine. With Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman. Written and directed by Martin Zandvliet. In German, Danish and English, with subtitles. Rated R. 100 minutes. At the Tara.