The best World War II films not only capture the grim, hellish reality of the almighty conflict but also shine the spotlight on the less well known stories that occurred throughout the fighting. Danish director Martin Zandvliet‘s Land of Mine does both, with this dark, heart-wrenching post-war drama about German prisoners of war.
It is 1945 and Denmark has been liberated from German occupation. A group of young, fresh-faced German soldiers find themselves prisoners of the Danish military, and are put to work clearing two million landmines from the beaches of the West Coast. Under the command of the unsympathetic, contemptuous Danish Sergeant Rasmussen (Roland Møller), these ill-equipped, untrained German boys are forced to deactivate the explosive devices using nothing but their bare hands.
Land of Mine sensitively depicts the Germans in a more sympathetic light, highlighting how in the final days of the war, young boys below the age of conscription were forced to fight, and thus bore the brunt of the anger and punishment imposed upon the German forces after their eventual defeat. The film makes great pains to really represent just how awfully these boys were treated after the armistice, despite their involvement in the war being minimal.
Zandliet ekes out every bit of tension from the beach scenes, as the boy are forced to painstakingly crawl along the sand and deactivate the explosive mines hidden beneath. The film avoids gratuitous violence (save for one very important scene early on), preferring to instead focus on the extreme and awful conditions these boys were subjected to.
Along the way, we see a bond develop between the conflicted Sergeant Rasmussen and the boys, particularly with the dedicated and inventive Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), which lends the film a degree of hope and heart. Of course though, things are never as simple, and the film repeatedly pulls the rug from under the audience, inviting shock, horror and heartbreak at nearly every turn.
The cast are engrossing throughout. Roland Møller‘s performance is particularly superb – conflicted and rounded, Møller and Zandliet collaborate to paint a flawed but sympathetic interpretation of the typical shouting military man, making the more dramatic moments involving the Sergeant and the boys under his command all the more nerve wracking, ultimately providing the film with a perfect emotional crux.
As absorbing as the film is, it is let down by a very rushed climax, one that skips important plot points that would have benefited the film, as poised to hindering it. Alas, the film finishes on a somewhat unsatisfactory note, with the nagging feeling that there was at least another 20 minutes or so missing at the forefront of this critic’s mind upon the credit roll.
This issue aside though, Land of Mine achieves what it sets out to achieve – exploring a tragic and unjust moment from history, and skilfully detailing the story of the German POW’s with the emotional sensitivity required. It may lack somewhat in the final few minutes, but for the most part, it’s an engaging and tension-laden watch.
Land of Mine opens in UK cinemas 4th August.