Those revelling in the slow-motion war-porn of Oscar winner Hacksaw Ridge should be forced to watch Land Of Mine, Martin Zandvliet’s magnificent, affecting exploration of the scars left by conflict and the complexity beyond the battlefield.
It’s May 1945, and World War II is all but over. In Denmark, a group of young German POWs are taken to the coast to enact penance for their part in the war. Under the hateful eye of Danish sergeant Rasmussen (Roland Møller), the teenagers are brought to a stretch of beach and forced to clear the 45,000 landmines peppered across it by hand.
Never has there been a more painfully tense experience of the post-war space. In a sparse 90 minutes, Zandvliet’s intimate focus on the delicate defusing of Germany’s finicky landmines has audiences digging their nails into their knees, biting their lips. At first, our sympathies lie with Rasmussen and the battered Danish victors – after all, the POWs are Nazis, right? “If you’re old enough to go to war, you’re old enough to clean up your mess,” says Danish Lt. Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard).
But the auteur never loses sight of one awful reality: these soldiers are children, conscripted and made to fight in a conflict beyond their understanding. As the brusque and sullen Rasmussen slowly warms to his charges, developing an almost fatherlike relationship with them, the lines between these two foes become less apparent. There are scenes of joy, scenes of laughter, scenes of play, scenes of grace; naturally, these scenes have tragic and explosive ends.
Zandvliet and cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen keep this drama confined to the beach: we, like the boys, are trapped within this landscape, and wide shots only serve to confirm the magnitude of their task. The calm swell of ocean can’t hide the dread-inducing thuds of the sticks the boys thrust into the sand; the terror of each discovery; the click of metal on metal in shaking hands; the inevitable blast.
Here, morality may be ambiguous, but death is not. As in Hacksaw Ridge, limbs are severed, bodies flung through the air, but these moments will not be celebrated for their flair. Each loss is acutely painful, leaving silence in its wake for contemplation of the character’s mortality. And, of course, our own.
The young cast of Land Of Mine deserves celebration. They are by turns exuberant, vulnerable and grimly devoted; 19-year-old Louis Hofmann is a particular standout. Brothers Ernst and Werner Lessner are portrayed by real brothers Emil Belton and Oskar Belton, lending even greater weight to their already heart-rending fate.
It may not have picked up Best Foreign Film, or have been as celebrated in the west as Hacksaw Ridge, but Zandvliet’s Land Of Mine is as close to a perfect anti-war film as we’ve yet seen. It is technically accomplished, harrowingly empathetic, and a testament to our shared humanity.
Land Of Mineopens in cinemas Thursday March 30.