War was hell but peace wasn’t any better for as many as 2,000 young German soldiers in Denmark in the days immediately following Germany’s defeat in the Second World War. Pressed into service by the Danish authorities, nearly half of them lost their lives or their limbs clearing the two million-odd landmines that the German army had laid in the sand all along Denmark’s western coast. Today we would call that a war crime.
The 2015 Danish-German film, LAND OF MINE (UNDER SANDET), fictionalises this little known chapter from history when these German boys — and boys they were, as some were as young as 15 — were essentially used as slave labour by the Danes. The teenagers were members of the Volkssturm, a German national militia that was created by the Nazi Party in late 1944 when able-bodied older men were in short supply. Woefully under-trained by both the Nazis and later by the Danes, they were ill-equipped and unprepared for literally what lay ahead for them. Crawling around in the sand with just metal rods to guide them, the boys were given a crash course in bomb defusing, first using previously deactivated mines and shortly thereafter with the real things.
In the film, Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Danish actor, Roland Møller) is put in charge of a dozen or so of these teens. Their mission is to clear a stretch of beach of the 45,000 mines that are buried there, according to seized German documents. Rasmussen tells the boys that once all the mines have been defused and removed, they can go home. Though the sergeant quickly sees that his conscripts are extremely young and naive, he shows them no compassion, ferociously berating them or smacking them around when they don’t show him the proper respect. But as fatal mistakes slowly winnow the group down, his attitude softens, becoming somewhat of a father-figure to the boys.
Shot at historically authentic locations, writer-director Martin Zandvliet competently evokes the increasing hopelessness these boys must have felt as they watch their numbers dwindle. The question begs, however, how much pity should we, the audience, feel for them? Zandvliet chooses to paint the boys as lambs to the slaughter, which they were, conveniently avoiding dealing with any Nazi ideology any or all of them would have espoused. Yes, they are victims who had been spoon-fed a diet of hate and ethnic superiority for most of their lives but a few weeks earlier they were aggressors who were zealously killing anyone who stood in their path to build a new world order. Because of this, the film’s ending is somewhat emotionally unsatisfying.
Overall, though, LAND OF MINE is a good film with solid acting all around. The film had its world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015 but it’s only on general release now because it made it to the shortlist of nine films to be considered for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® at this year’s Academy Awards. We’ll know next Tuesday (January 24th) if the film made the final cut. It’s up against some very strong competition that includes festival darlings ELLE (from France) and TONI ERDMANN (from Germany).
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