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The Academy Award-nominated Land of Mine is a stirring drama about the cruel treatment of young German POWs in Denmark. While short on surprises, the movie is full of powerful performances, with Roland Møller, in particular, making a lasting impression.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, German POWs were ordered to help defuse a large number of land mines from the Danish West Coast. This was a direct violation of the Geneva Convention, but the rules on treating prisoners of war were bypassed by labeling them “voluntarily surrendered enemy personnel instead”. Many of the POWs lacked the training and eqipment for the task, often digging out mines from the beaches with their bare hands.
Land of Mine focuses on a group of teenage POWs under the supervision of hardened veteran Sgt. Rassmussen (Roland Møller). Rassmussen doesn’t try to hide his hatred of Germans and his verbal and physical abuse of the boys under his command makes their already cruel task all the more harrowing. Møller is excellent at channeling the veteran’s soldier rage, to the point where he’s genuinely scary in most of his early scenes.
Over time, the character grows more sympathetic to the boys’ plight, giving Møller more to chew on with the role. Pacing wise, Land of Mine, kind of fumbles Rassmussen’s transformation from spiteful commanding officer to warm and supportive father figure, but Møller’s performance never misses a beat.
Many of the movie’s plot beats feel familiar, but what sets it apart is that it shines a light on historical events most people are probably unfamiliar with. What happened to those captured German soldiers was shameful and disgusting, and it’s important that it’s not forgotten or ignored. One particularly chilling scene shows a Danish woman quietly gloating that some of the Germans might die from the bad grain they found in her barn – a nasty reminder of how deep hatred can run.
As you might expect when you have inexperienced children defusing mines with their bare hands, many tragedies occur. It’s a shame that Land of Mine clearly telegraphs pretty much all of them. You’ll not only have a good idea who will live and who will die, you’ll also be able to tell when a mine is going to go off well in advance. As a rule of thumb, if any of the characters start talking about what they’ll do when they go back home, they’re going to die.
One death had the double misfortune of being obvious and presented in a fashion that made it seem darkly comedic, undermining the emotional impact [SPOILERS – maybe I’m just a monster, but the way they filmed the death of the dog was hilarious – END SPOILERS].
Fortunately, Land of Mine is more about the emotional and physical toil of the task and doesn’t rely on the tension from the defusal scenes to hold your interest. The young, fresh faced actors playing the German soldiers (Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Oskar Bökelmann, Emil Belton, Oskar Belton and others) give fine performances and certainly look the part of frightened children about to jump into a meat blender. The movie uses intense, graphic violence sparingly, but makes it hit hard.
The strength of the cast’s performances and the deeply troubling true events that inspired it to make Land of Mine a memorable and important movie. It’s held back by familiar storytelling tropes, but it’s still well worth watching.