When we look at modern films about World War II, a conflict that came to an end 71 years ago, we should first be asking why these films are being made today. We’ve had cinematic interpretations of the physical and figurative scars the war has left for decades and its cultural currency seems to have hardly waned. The very notion of a period-set war film seems to give feature films a base level of substance they don’t have to earn; an emotional pull gifted by virtue of subject matter. Even when it becomes widely accepted that a film mishandled its historical narrative in some way (George Clooney’s The Monuments Men for instance), it is spared critical savaging because its intentions were in some way noble. In recent years skilled filmmakers have pivoted towards abstraction and muted narratives as a means of addressing personal and national repression linked to the war. No such skill is on display in Land of Mine (orig: Under Sandet) which seeks to justify its existence as the unmasking of national shame, a trueish-to-history tale wherein the Danish army forced thousands of German prisoners of war to sweep their coastline clean of landmines in the immediate aftermath of World War II.1 The uniquely cruel war crime is better served in a paragraph on Wikipedia than in Martin Zandvliet’s film, which relies on an abuse of tension to bolster his flimsy and histrionic screenplay. People who found no issue with Steven Spielberg’s unconscionable Auschwitz shower sequence in Schindler’s List will likely give an enthusiastic pass to Land of Mine, which traffics in a similar mess of horrific history repackaged as tense entertainment.
Unlike László Nemes’ recent Son of Saul — which Jaymes Durante argued addresses the problem of representation in Holocaust cinema by avoiding an overarching emotional pull and “obfuscating visual methodology” — Land of Mine is packed to the gills with cheap sentimentality and simplistic visual and narrative decisions. Zandvliet spends the opening stretch ensuring that we recognise the inversion of power in post-WWII Denmark: the losing German army were once an invading force, now rendered as young and helpless prisoners pulled out of line and beaten on a whim. A troop of fourteen young German men hastily trained in landmine disarming are put under the command of Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller), who spends the film watching the boys get picked off one by one by landmines and slowly understanding the gross injustice he perpetuates by punishing them for their high command’s military tactics. This would be a much more compelling narrative were it not for the fact that the film indulges in the same ignorance that it criticises; though the film’s dramatic stakes are centred around Carl’s recognition of humanity in young enemy soldiers, Zandvliet never sees them as flesh and blood – they are symbolic tools with limited characterisation intended only to give emotional weight to the arc of the Danish sergeant and to prescribe a moral weight to the film’s reckless use of tension.
We oscillate between distended landmine disabling sequences and scenes of contrived interpersonal interactions, some of which also end with an explosion (if they start talking about life at home, that’s your cue). The treatment of the sudden deaths of prisoners as cruel punchlines to a scene is intended to horrify us as an aberration of nature, but the film is constructed in a way that their deaths are essential to the progression of narrative and release of tension. Rather than acknowledge this by embracing a clinical fatalism, Zandvliet cleaves to overly dramatic plot points and contrived character arcs. Major tonal shifts come from the actions of a dog and a toddler; the prisoners count among their number a young hopeful boy (the first to be blown to smithereens), a set of twins (what could possibly happen with twins in a film about landmines, I hear you say); the Danish sergeant is only made more endearing to us and the prisoners because his relatively more evil superior officer is brought back into the film (played by Mikkel Følsgaard, who has one of the most punchable faces in all of cinema).2
Its narrative problems aren’t masked over by the film’s handsome cinematography, which would have been more at home in a Jeep commercial than an ostensibly serious film about war. The colour palette is perhaps all that’s consistent visually, Camilla Hjelm Knudsen shifting between locked off shots, handheld camera work and then a jolting bird’s eye view helicopter sequence during the film’s token moment of happiness (it’s a soccer game; Joyeux Noël with a sunnier disposition). The framing of shots in the film acts to condition us to expect death, a wide shot held too long being the biggest cue, yet the repeated depiction of fatal explosions in a small section of the frame, rather than the central focus, is once more telling that the film wants these deaths to be a surprising dramatic moment. The surprise quickly shifts to overly sentimental drama, as attested by the god-awful strummed guitar score that accompanies the deaths of the boys.
In almost every scene, Zandvliet takes the least subtle path of storytelling possible, turning in an overwrought and underdeveloped humanist war drama. Whilst the film has most definitely succeeded as a piece of info-tainment, spawning many a feature piece on the film and its historical point-of-reference, it falls far short as an ethical piece of WWII cinema, coasting on the back of its confronting subject matter and never once treating the horrific deaths of prisoners of war as anything greater than a plot point or piece of character motivation.
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