When German forces ended their occupation of Denmark in the immediate aftermath of World War II, they left behind millions of landmines -- planted in preparation for an Allied invasion that never came -- on beaches along the west coast of the country. The removal of those explosives became a task left to German POWs, and an outlet for the widespread hatred of those who carried out the Nazis' horrific practices.
In reality, most of those prisoners were teenage boys, as young as 13, drafted during Hitler's most desperate hours toward the end of the war. It's during this lesser-known dark chapter of the war that Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet's drama "Land of Mine" takes place. A gripping tale of innocence lost, the film was one of the five pictures nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars.
Sergeant Rasmussen (Roland Møller) is placed in charge of one group of these young boys, tasked with overseeing the clearing of 45,000 mines left along one beach. Rasmussen's feelings toward the Germans are made plain in the first moments of the film: when he witnesses a squad of defeated German soldiers marching out of the country, he ends up reducing one's face to a bloody pulp. The age of his prisoners does nothing to soften his resolve, and the sergeant makes it clear to the boys that he doesn't care whether they live or die -- whether that be by starvation or by being blown to smithereens. Rasmussen promises the boys that once they've completed their task, they'll be free to return home, but the question soon becomes whether any will live that long.
Zandvliet sketches in details for a few of the boys: there's Helmut (Joel Basman), bitterly pragmatic about his chances of survival; inseparable twins Ernst (Emil Belton) and Werner (Oskar Belton); and Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), the closest thing to a leader within the group. We watch them crawl across the vast beach, probing the wet sand with metal rods to uncover each explosive, hands quivering as they work to disarm them. And in that situation it's hard not to feel sympathy (admittedly, it probably helps that we never witness the boys engage in any political talk).
Shell-shocked and scared, the boys still cry out for their mothers when they're injured and wish for nothing more than to go home again. As their numbers dwindle, we sense Rasmussen's mounting compassion as he grows more and more conflicted about their mission.
"Land of Mine" examines the spiritual cost of allowing our desire for vengeance to outweigh any sense of justice. In their enthusiasm to see suffering in the faces of any who represented the Nazi regime, Allied Forces ended up committing war crimes of their own. The film is at times unbearably tense -- although save for one detonation early on, Zandvliet mostly spares us any gory aftermath. He's also got a sentimental streak, which isn't entirely unwelcome in such a grim story. He reminds us that even in the darkest times, our sense of humanity is still our strongest ally.