Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: "Land of Mine"

An Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, “Land of Mine” looks at a true piece of largely forgotten history and provides a fictional take on what life must have been like for the people caught up in those times. Specifically, young German POWs -- boys, really -- who were forced to clear mines from Allied beaches after World War II.

They were essentially slave labor in a deadly game that had as much to do with retribution as demilitarization. Something like 2,000 German soldiers were conscripted to remove mines in Denmark, with a casualty rate approaching 50 percent.

This Danish-German production, written and directed by Martin Zandvliet, is a powerful ensemble piece that looks at a group of teenagers, with no one character really standing apart from the crowd. This is by design, as the actors are representing more archetypes than specific people.

Also, considering the rate at which they die or are maimed -- in some cases, by their own deliberate actions -- it’s probably best that we don’t identify too strongly with any one of them. Louis Hofmann plays Sebastian, sort of the default leader of the POWs.

Roland Møller plays Rasmussen, the hardcase Danish sergeant who is placed in charge of the group. A burly, seasoned veteran who despises the Germans -- in the opening scene, he is depicted beating a retreating soldier senseless with little provocation -- he’s none too pleased with his assignment.

At first he treats them with outright cruelty, refusing even to bring them anything to eat. Food is scarce after the devastation of the war and German POWs are at the bottom of the feeding list -- but Rasmussen doesn’t make much of an attempt to hurry things along.

Eventually, though, he starts to warm up to his charges -- even defending them when his lieutenant and some other drunken officers show up to harass and humiliate them.

The Germans are passive and resigned to defeat. Most of them are mere boys, Hitler Youth and the like who were called up at the end of the war and never saw much real fighting. One lad is a bit older, a self-proclaimed veteran who even sports a mustache, who is determined to escape. It shouldn’t be hard, as they are kept inside a ramshackle hut near the beach. But the others forcibly prevent him from bringing harsh treatment down upon the rest of them.

Zandvliet shows us the actual harrowing process of finding and defusing mines, their young hands searching for and unscrewing the firing mechanism at the top. They go through a nerve-rattling training process, and soon the mines are being removed so quickly that it’s easy to be tricked into treating it as routine -- with deadly results.

Movies about WWII in which Germans or Japanese are treated sympathetically are still problematic for some people. I remember the outcry when “Das Boot” came out more than three decades ago and depicted a U-boat crew as resolute and even heroic.

In war, it’s possible to demonstrate nobility in service to an evil regime, or to show cruelty in fighting for a cause that is just. “Land of Mine” is a wise and worthy film that understands that acts of depravity know no national borders.

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