Those old enough to remember wasting time at a desk job playing Minesweeper on a late-’90s PC will have to reconsider the significance of such pursuits after seeing Land of Mine. And if that joke seems painfully tone-deaf given the political context of this film, it’s nothing compared to the botched translation of its title for English-speaking markets — the original title, Under Sandert, could be accurately translated to “Under the Sand” and lose nothing by dropping the pun. Danish writer/director Martin Zandvliet’s Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee is a fictionalized recounting of a real-life war crime orchestrated by the Brits and executed by the Danes immediately following World War II, in which German POWs were tasked with clearing millions of landmines from the beaches of Denmark by hand in defiance of the Geneva Conventions. Needless to say, very few survived.
If this political position seems to be a bit of, well, a minefield, Zandvliet’s far from the first director to have braved these particular waters — films from The Grand Illusion to Das Boot have tried to turn the tables on conventional prejudices by humanizing oppositional warring parties. While Zandvliet may not break any especially new ground, he calls attention to one of the more problematic chapters of reconstruction in postwar Europe with efficacy and efficiency. The primary narrative arc is far from surprising, but that doesn’t diminish the film’s impact.
The story follows Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller), a Danish officer introduced to the audience by viciously beating a POW within the first three minutes of the film — ostensibly for stealing a flag, but mostly for being German. Rasmussen has been placed in charge of demining a small stretch of beach, and the former Nazis placed under his command are barely old enough to shave. Things are relatively predictable from there on, with Rasmussen’s heart softening to boys “who cry for their mothers when their limbs are blown off,” not an uncommon occurrence in this film.
Zandvliet’s stock in trade with Land of Mine is suspense, and he builds tension proficiently as the film progresses. The catch here is that the size (and necessary expendability) of the cast means Rasmussen is the only character who’s ever really fleshed out, with secondary characters having only a few lines to establish any sort of persona and tertiary characters being relegated to the barest characterization possible. There’s the wound-too-tight former officer, the young twin brothers who want to become bricklayers in Berlin, the kid who misses his mom’s cooking, etc. Rasmussen’s only real points of contact are his dog and Sebastian, the most intelligent and enterprising of the captive workers. All of this amounts to drama with high stakes but little emotional consequence, and the deaths become more heavily telegraphed as the boys are picked off one by one, slowly leading Rasmussen to finally question the ethics of his orders.
Møller carries the film admirably, his stiff-jawed grimace softening ever so slightly until an unfortunate accident brings back the psychotic zeal for sadism he displayed in the opening scenes. Had Zandvliet’s script delved into the murkier waters of reconstruction or dug a little more deeply for an emotional conflict beyond the obvious, Land of Mine might have taken home the Oscar for which it was nominated. As it stands, the film feels like a powerful story hampered by a workmanlike execution, banking on the political controversy surrounding its subject to draw the attention of audiences and critics. It’s a film as visually and narratively bleak as its subject, and while it’s a competent piece of filmmaking, it’s also not something I’d particularly like to see again. Rated R for violence, some grisly images and language. German and Danish with English subtitles. Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.