War is arguably an inevitable outcome of the human existence, and in children is not so much a corruption of innocence as an annihilation. The effect of war on this innocence is the primary examination of Denmark’s nomination for the 2016 Oscar for best foreign film, Land of Mine. Land of Mine was initially released in Denmark in 2015, but only received its release in Australia in 2017.
Land of Mine is, at first, a play on words. We open on Sergeant Carl Leopold Rasmussen (a fiercely emotional performance from Roland Møller) screaming at German troops at the end of World War 2. Screaming at them to leave his country, very proud and protective of his precious Denmark. We soon find out he has been tasked with supervising young German soldiers whose duty it is to locate and disarm landmines planted by German troops on Danish beaches throughout the war. Initially he has an inexorable loathing of these boys, but through the course of the film, he forms a bond with them, realising they aren’t the cold hearted savages he had made them out to be in his mind.
War is, essentially, mass death, and should never be glorified, and whilst this movie is anything but glorification, my initial reservations were with the aesthetic values. The landscape is shot wonderfully, the images are wistful and poetic, which can run against the films subject matter in sections where, for instance, the boys have been starved so long they are nauseous, their stark living conditions. Director Martin Zandvliet is perhaps a little shy in the nastiest details of what his situation fully entails, which is understandable, as it is a horrific situation, but one we do not get as full an appreciation of as we could in a braver filmmaker.
Zandvliet’s strengths do not lie in his courage or sparkling ingenuity, they lie in his consummate timing and masterful skill set. He is guilty of some filmmaking errors throughout the course of the film, using characters as obvious plot devices, telegraphing some of the film’s more supposedly shocking moments, but overall he does complete justice to the characters and imbues them all with individuality, and humanity. He observes them from interesting places, focusing on not their fear of being blown up by the mines at hand, but the fear of life after the mines have gone: what will they do for work, what will Germany be like when they return? They are children, full of questions without answers, and Zandvliet is wonderfully sympathetic to their cause.
Some of the film’s most deliberately set up moments are the strongest emotionally, which left me feeling conflicted, but ultimately overpowered: I could see Zandvliet’s hand in the construction of Ernst’s mourning of his brother Werner, but the scene was too powerful, with too strong an understanding of the connection between the twins, for me to deny. The film’s most powerful moment, an emotional peak from which the film and its characters never truly recover, is one I will not spoil, but thankfully one that is not done by any obvious contrivance of plot, it is a happening so inspired and emotionally daring that the viewer, already ensconced into the dangerous world of the film, becomes so numbly absorbed into the action that the scene’s terrible climax is no longer as shocking as it is merciful. It is a moment of greatness in a very compelling film, and will definitely linger in my mind as one of the most powerful scenes released in cinemas this year.
The evolution of Sergeant Rasmussen’s attitude towards the boys is certainly the film’s most obvious plot cycle, and is perhaps the least skilfully handled: the changing of his face is thankfully slow, deliberate, but not exciting, surprising, or at all inspired. This storyline works best when it shows Rasmussen’s understanding as greater than his situation, his realisation that despite all his military experience, to get a clearer view of the post war scenario, he must learn to explore his empathy. The weakness of this plot line was only evident in small sections and, to me, did not detract from the film in any significant way, except for the film’s ending, which could have been much less contrived.
Land of Mine is by no means a perfect film, but has moments of inspiration, and a powerful sense of impending doom laced throughout, and makes for a thrilling, heartbreaking depiction of youth in war.