“Land of Mine” (Denmark)
Directed by Martin Zandvliet
For a long time I have been extolling the virtues of Antony Beevor’s historical tome detailing the Battle of Stalingrad (“Stalingrad”, Penguin Books). As that particular battle was close to being lost, over 100,000 soldiers, mostly teenagers at that point, could have been airlifted to safety before they were officially captured. Hitler said nein, and of that 100,000, a mere five thousand made it home. That fact brings with it, for me anyway, a deep well of empathy for the common German children forced to be on the front-lines of The Wehrmacht, powerless to bring about change on an individual level, and suffering the horrors of war equally with Allied soldiers.
While taking place in a much different place and time in the immediate aftermath of Nazi surrender, Martin Zandvliet, in his incredible feature “Land of Mine”, has captured that essential chrysalis…how hate of enemy combatants can transform in to real human connection and, yes, empathy. The story could not be more simple, focusing, as it does, on twelve of the thousands of teenage German soldiers forced, post-occupation, to clear millions of Nazi-placed mines from Denmark’s western coast. Simple story….gigantic scope…and even larger stakes and tension. Those old enough, may recall the Masterpiece Theater saga, “Danger UXB”. And, while the tension of disarming mines is palpable in both, that’s where the comparisons end. “UXB” is a soap opera…a slice of life. “Land of Mine” is, in no way, that. Tossing out the soap, it, instead, focuses on the forced interaction of very close quarters and in-your-face mortality. In this manner, Zandvliet gets the most out of the boys’ relationship to each other and to the Denmark-born, and Nazi-hating, officer whose job it is to oversee their efforts, all with very little script and a lightning fast 95-minute running time. A miraculous juggling act.
The acting could not be better. The boys are perfectly cast and portray the fear, tension, and longing of their situation with incredible precision, given their lack of experience. Emil and Oskar Bolton, who play fifteen year-old twins, are particular standouts. Their story is so beautifully told, with no histrionics and absolute conviction. But Roland Moller, as the Danish Sergeant, pulls off the most impressive work as the embodiment of shifting post-War attitudes…subtle and tiny as those shifts may be. Truly a wonder of a performance.
Special mention to Camilla Hjelm, whose hyper-saturated cinematography keeps the eye and mind constantly aware of the scope and task of the boys’ Herculean task. Maybe even more impressive is how her photography makes the beach a complex character unto itself…tantalizing and seductive – a place of joy and release, yet simultaneously hiding the most horrifying of dangers. A work of art.
And then there’s Sune Martin’s INCREDIBLE score. Beyond subtle, it’s almost imperceptibly quiet. Lovely, sad, and perfectly placed throughout. The two main themes are now in my current rotation, and I suspect will be for some time. For some reason I thought of Mark Isham’s score for Kevin Reynolds’ 1988 tank drama, “The Beast”, even though they are nothing alike musically. Perhaps it’s because they both evoked a melancholy for the loneliness and dread of impossible and awful choices that must be made in wartime.
“Land of Mine” is, without a shred of doubt, the best foreign language film I have seen in 2016. When it finally arrives to a streaming service or theater near you, please, please, please, reward it with your attention.
Written on 12/1/2016