When the Nazi’s occupied Denmark they buried a something in the range of two million land mines underneath the land in an anticipation for a land battle that never happened. Once the Nazi’s fell and the war was over, Denmark took hold of two thousand German prisoners of war to clean up the mess left behind. These weren’t soldiers, however. These were Hitler’s former youth.
Boys, some barely into their teens, were brought in as retaliation against Germany for its crimes against humanity. Commanded by Sergeant Rasmussen (the achingly handsome Roland Moller) who treats the boys as dogs and makes no bones about his contempt, he instructs the boys on how to defuse a mine in one of the movie’s initial sequences. It is a hard scene to watch, but again, our sympathy is not with anything German in this film. The boys get introduced one by one and have their distinct personalities — mainly drawn for plot purposes, since only one or two emerge above the rest as actual people — and thus the movie begins, at the beach, where they must remove 45,000 mines, even at the risk of losing their own lives.
For the most part, Land of Mine — which technically looks like it would be the title of a completely different movie altogether, something closer to Americana, as its direct translation would be Under the Sand — takes off in grim fashion. The boys start searching the pearly white sand for mines, but haven’t eaten. One of them escapes the compound one night, retrieves some food from a nearby house where a woman and her daughter live, and the entire group gets food poisoning. [Later, it’s revealed that the Danish woman intentionally put rat feces in the food. Can’t blame her, but it comes to bite her in the ass somewhat later on in an unexpected fashion.] One of them, a redhead named Wilhelm, vomits all over the piece of beach he’s working on, and in a moment of complete surprise that would make Hitchcock cringe, one of them goes off, severing both his arms, killing him days later.
It’s his death that gives the brutish Rasmussen a change of heart and he buys rations of food so the boys could eat. This, of course, proves to be problematic with his superiors who don’t take to this kindly and remind him these are Germans. Rasmussen, however, has begun to see them as actual boys barely aware of their situation. A tentative camaraderie starts to develop until Rasmussen’s dog gets killed (off-screen) by a mine after chasing a ball. Rasmussen shifts back to his former persona, but there are other events that will make their way into the movie in order to bring a sense of closure between Rasmussen and the boys, which is a none too subtle symbol for Denmark and Germany.
Land of Mine is pretty efficient a a war drama, but that’s it. Nothing in it stands out as grand — how many beach scenes have been filmed with great beauty? Countless, and there is one here during the entire run, and it just doesn’t bring the movie to anything other than okay. I mentioned Hitchcock a couple of paragraphs up for a reason. The first scene involving an exploding bomb happens almost without any warning, and perhaps this was the director’s choice, but it’s not a very good one (and again, reduces the film to flat narration). Sabotage (1937 offers a scene with a bomb and a boy that has since become a textbook example of suspense. That this technique wasn’t used here, or in any other sequence, hurts the film and makes such explosions almost redundant other than gripping.
But let me stop with Hitch for a second: Kathryn Bigelow, one of the best directors out there, delivered a nail-biting movie about the same topic and milked those sequences for all they were worth. She took her own approach, and transformed what could have been mechanical sequences into white-hot suspense that never once let up.
For a year with outstanding films from overseas, I’m a little perplexed why the Academy chose this one over Almodovar’s Julieta, Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, France’s Elle, or South Korea’s The Handmaiden. Me doth think that we tend to love Danish cinema a little too much and grant it gratuitous nominations for the sake of it. Perhaps it’s time to look elsewhere?