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At this point it might seem hard to find a World War II story that hasn’t been told, but Danish director Martin Zandvliet has come up with a fresh and compelling approach to this well-traveled territory. Land of Mine, based on a true but not well-known part of history, rediscovers the past and brings it to life with remarkable assurance. The film works as a moving antiwar essay and as a gripping thriller. American audiences should respond.
After the official end of the war in May 1945, German POWs in Denmark were put to work on a deadly task — defusing more than 2 million German land mines that had been set along the country’s west coast, perhaps in the mistaken idea that this was where the Allied invasion of Europe would occur. The main character is Danish Sergeant Rasmussen (Roland Moller), who is assigned to train and oversee the German prisoners. Most of them are teenage boys conscripted by Hitler in the last days of the war, and they are hopelessly ill equipped to carry out their dangerous job.
An early scene of the captured German soldiers being harassed by the Danes shows the understandable hatred that the Danes felt toward their occupiers. Rasmussen shares this contempt, and he is determined to treat the young soldiers under his command without the least bit of sympathy. They are locked in at night and given almost no food, and their work on the beach inevitably leads to calamitous accidents.
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Considering that the contours of the story are fairly predictable, it’s surprising how much suspense and pathos Zandvliet builds. One of the film’s chief assets is the performance of Moller, who takes us along on a credible emotional journey as Rasmussen gradually and almost grudgingly comes to recognize the vulnerability of his young charges. His moral awakening is handled subtly, without the slightest hint of sentimentality.
The German boys might have been more sharply differentiated in the script, but the performances by these young actors are equally effective. Cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen (the wife of the director) makes excellent use of the striking seaside locations. The sound and special effects team also do a superb job with the harrowing scenes in the minefield, which sometimes culminate in startling and devastating explosions.
There may be nothing novel in a story of enemies beginning to recognize the humanity in their despised antagonists. Jean Renoir told such a story memorably in Grand Illusion back in the 1930s. But of course this kind of plea for compassion will never lose its relevance. Thanks to the skills of actors and filmmakers, Land of Mine (a neat title) serves up another vivid rendition of this always timely theme.
Production company: Nordisk
Cast: Roland Moller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, Laura Bro
Director-screenwriter: Martin Zandvliet
Producers: Mikael Rieks, Malte Grunert
Executive producers: Henrik Zein, Torben Majgaard, Lena Haugaard, Oliver Simon, Daniel Baur, Stefan Kapelari, Silke Wilfinger
Director of photography: Camilla Hjelm Knudsen
Production designer: Gitte Malling
Costume designer: Stefanie Bieker
Editors: Per Sandholt, Molly Malene Stensgaard
Music: Sune Martin
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)
No rating, 100 minutes
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