Maybe it's the ongoing refugee crisis or the ever-present threat of terrorism across Europe. Whatever the inspiration, European filmmakers continually return to the immediate aftermath of World War II for stories that resonate in today's contentious world. Winner of three European Film Awards and one of five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the recent Academy Awards, Danish director Martin Zandvliet's Land of Mine is the latest movie to bring the moral quandaries of post-war Europe into the 21st century, where they seem to have found a new home.
Land of Mine tells a "based-on-true-events" story troubling and controversial enough to have kept generations of war historians from dwelling on it — particularly those from Denmark.
Over the course of their five-year occupation of Denmark during World War II, the Nazi regime buried more than 2 million land mines on the western coast of that country, apparently anticipating the arrival of Allied forces in an area close to Berlin. When the war ended, British forces offered German POWs to Denmark to perform the difficult and exceedingly dangerous task of removing those mines by hand.
Though the Geneva Conventions forbade the use of captive soldiers for hard labor or dangerous work, more than 2,000 German POWs were forced to remove more than 1.5 million land mines from Denmark in what can be considered a massive war crime. More than half the POWs were maimed or killed in the operation. Making matters worse, most of the POWs were teenagers — some as young as 13 — who had been conscripted into the German army during the last desperate stages of the war.
Burdened with a bad pun for its English-language title, Land of Mine fictionalizes this painful history by imagining a group of 14 German boys forced into a months-long project to clear the mines from a single stretch of beach in Denmark. The boys work under the direction of a Danish sergeant (Roland Moller) who's clearly had enough of German soldiers. Though the sweep of history is grand, Zandvliet's film tells an intimate and ultimately life-affirming tale of revenge and forgiveness in an increasingly complex world.
The director's emphasis is on his characters, all brought to life by a capable young cast with no previous acting experience and a world-weary, 44-year-old Moller, who has become a star in Europe thanks to his moving work in his first lead role. Shot mostly at an abandoned military base on a beach in western Denmark (a mine reportedly was discovered on the site during the shoot), Land of Mine makes the most of an idyllic summer setting and its contrast with the story's harsh realities and dark themes. The film's brisk pacing and efficient storytelling belie its modest budget.
Zandvliet has been labeled "unpatriotic" by Danes who object to his deeply humanist film for its unsparing depiction of a difficult time in Denmark's history. But that is the price often paid by artists looking to bring hard truths into the light of day. It is a cautionary tale about the dangers of taking on one's enemies' worst qualities as circumstances evolve. Land of Mine couldn't be more timely.