Arts & Events

Land of Mine: Denmark's Explosive Oscar-Nominated Film

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Saturday March 04, 2017 - 11:13:00 AM

Opens at the Albany Twin on March 3 (Rated R)

Hollywood's depiction of Silver Screen warfare has evolved. During and after WWII, Hollywood enlisted to promote warfare big-time, big-screen. The result was a genre of cinema we might call "warmance"—a glorification of the noble and heroic warrior soldier.

Recently, the "warmance" tradition has migrated into an endless stream of over-the-top summer action/adventure/sci-fi blockbusters. Warmance also commands laptops and smartphones with images of Small-Screen violence designed to transfix and reprogram young minds. You might call this new genre: "Warporn."

Now, increasingly, we have movies depicting the horrors of war—a genre we might call "warpology" films. Works like Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge mix bloody mayhem with soul-affirming messages. One of the best of these films is Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet's new Oscar-nominated Land of Mine.




This powerful Danish film unearths the little-known story of captive German POWs forced to remove 2 million German landmines from Denmark's beaches after the end of WWII. It's a taboo story that's been hidden from the Danish people. 

The Geneva Convention forbids ordering captive soldiers to do hard labor or carry out dangerous work but Denmark avoided this law—with the connivance of Britain, which handed over German "prisoners of war" but redefined them as "voluntarily surrendered enemy personnel." 

Most of the German soldiers captured at the end of the long war were old men and young boys—teenagers, most of them, some as young as 15. They had no training in mine removal and, as a result, 1,300 were killed or maimed, torn apart on Denmark's beaches, their names unknown.  

The film opens with Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Muller) jumping from his jeep and attacking a young German POW being force-marched down a dirt road. The violence is sudden and appalling. Rasmussen's raging brutality against the Germans, who have "invaded this land of mine," is unchecked and excessive. 

The physical violence in the film is literally in-your-face, with tight shots of people being punched bloody and slapped until cheeks are swollen. (The actors must have suffered for these shots.) 

There is one scene that still hasn't left my mind. A young German stands at attention with Rasmussen about one foot from his face and the camera even closer. Rasmussen screams at the young man and slaps him—again and again and again—as he struggles to retain his composure. (Pray to the gods of cinema that this scene didn't require more than one take.) 

A group of American soldiers makes a brief cameo in a repellent scene that suggests Donald Trump's alleged affection for "water sports" may be shared by certain dominant military personalities as well. 

There is a redemptive scene at the end but it's a nerve-wracking viewing experience. Going in, you know that, inevitably, a bomb will explode and someone is going to die but you never know when or how. Every minute is a nail-biting minute. Each detonation is sudden and horrifying, the blasts either leaving the victim with bloodied stumps instead of limbs or blown into pieces too small to recognize as anything human. 

The actors (many of them young first-timers) are all memorable as they struggle to survive beatings, starvation, and the nerve-ripping hours spent face-down on the beaches, probing for mines and slowly unscrewing the sand-covered detonator caps that could blow them to hell. 

Rasmussen's initial intolerance makes it all-the-more affecting when the hardened commander eventually softens, takes a liking to the young German boys and winds up stealing bread to feed them. 

Land of Mine is a story that begins with an explosion of personal vengeance but slowly becomes a deeper story of human bonding and reconciliation. 

There is one particularly sublime scene: After a stretch of beach is cleared of 1,200 buried mines, Rasmussen gives his workers "a day off." They assemble on the de-mined beach for a game of soccer (played with a ragged makeshift ball). The Danish tyrant lets down his guard and joins his captives in a free-spirited contest for possession of the ball. 

(The scene is reminiscent of an actual moment during the 1914 "Christmas Truce" in WWI where British and German soldiers started singing the same carols (but in different languages). Against the orders of their officers, they emerged from their trenches and met in No Mans' Land, where they exchanged gifts and played a rousing game of soccer.) 

But don't relax yet. Zandvliet still has some more bloody surprises in store. 

Historical Facts (from the film studio's production notes): 

· From 1942 to 1944 Nazi Germany built the so-called Atlantic Wall in anticipation of an Allied invasion from Great Britain—an extensive system of coastal defense and fortifications along the coast of continental Europe and Scandinavia. Landmines were planted along great swathes of the West Coast of Denmark. There where more landmines per square meter on the Danish west coast than any other location along the entire European coast. 

Hitler was convinced that the Allied invasion would come via the Danish 

west coast since it is the shortest route to Berlin. 

· After the capitulation of Nazi Germany, the British liberation forces offered the Danish government the opportunity to enlist German POWs to defuse mines along the length of the Danish Western coastline. 

· The German POWs were neither educated nor equipped for this task and many belonged to the so-called Volkssturm, a national militia set up by Hitler towards the end of the war to conscript those not already serving for the German forces. Many were very young or old. The youngest were 13 years old. 

· To force German POWs to defuse mines was a violation of the 1929 Convention relating to the Treatment of Prisoners of War prior to the amendment to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. By calling the German POWs ‘voluntarily surrendered enemy personnel’ British and Danish commands bypassed the rules of the Convention. 

·The work began on Saturday, May 5,1945, and was completed on Thursday, October 1945. 

· According to historian Thomas Tram Pedersen, the exact number of the losses will never be known due to the chaos of the first months of peace. There are discrepancies between the Danish and German records. 

· After the war more than 2,000 German POW’s were forced to remove over 1.5 million landmines from the west coast of Denmark. 

· The relationship between the German POWs and the local population was poor—the prize for five years of occupation under Nazi rule. There was no proper accommodation provided and food was constantly scarce. 

· In 64 countries around the world, there are an estimated 110 million undetonated landmines still lodged in the ground. 

· Since 1975, landmines have killed or maimed more than one million people. 

· On average, 20 people die every day due to landmine blasts. 

· Even with training, mine disposal experts expect that for every 5,000 mines cleared, one worker will be killed and two workers will be injured by accidental explosions. 

· The only way to deactivate a landmine is by individual removal at a cost of $300—1,000 per mine according to the United Nations.