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Review: Land of Mine- “Finding war stories worth telling”

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War films have existed in some form ever since the beginning of film. The universal themes and compelling storylines that can arise from such terrible and horror-ridden events have been of a special interest to even the most casual filmgoers. But because war films have been around for so long, telling a genuinely gripping war story is a tall task. Few war films can effectively depict the ultra-violence of war realistically (think Saving Pvt. Ryan (1998) or Hacksaw Ridge (2016)), while other war films feel bland and soul-less (David Ayer’s Fury (2015).) In fact, in the eyes of many, war films, and especially WWII films, have reached a point of oversaturation. For this reason, directors who wish to make a war film now have to find original, different, and worth-while stories to tell; and writer & director Martin Zandvliet achieves that soundly in his 2017 Oscar-nominated film “Land of Mine.”

Land of Mine (Under Sandet) tells the story of a battalion of German soldiers that get tasked with the deadly mission of removing all active mines hiding under the sand in the beaches of Denmark after World War II. But such a dangerous mission is set on a battalion of teenagers, most of them not even 18 years old, and the strict, disciplined, no-bullshit man Danish Sgt. Rasmussen (Rolland Moller) is set to overlook the operation on that beach. The terrible conditions that these kids have to work on, with potentially life-ending consequences, is displayed with sincerity, the Danish director manages to deliver a touching but firm handed historical drama.

A war-hardened, veteran, and serious-looking soldier arrives at a scene where a group of German soldiers are marching after their surrender. It would seem that Sgt. Carl Rasmussen is the embodiment of nationalism, military toughness and cold-heartedness, and the director makes sure this is the first thing we see. When he sees the German soldiers, defenseless, he proceeds to nearly beat a soldier to death with his bare hands because he was carrying a Danish flag.  The thing is, that despite it being the story of the kids that must remove the mines, it is more so the story of Rasmussen, because it is his transformation- his character arc- that drives the story’s narrative progression. Though I will try to reveal as little of the plot as possible, I will disclose that Rasmussen is a very interesting character, (although it did seem like the writer/director didn’t want to show enough of him that it would make him a clear-cut protagonist) as a matter of fact, Rasmussen is very much the antagonist. Even after one of the boys loses his arms when a mine goes off as he tries to deactivate it, Rasmussen remains careless, cold and unsympathetic towards them- insulting them, making them work long hours without even feeding them for days. Seeing the boys break both mentally and physically doesn’t seem to take a toll on the Sergeant, whose (contextually) understandable hatred towards the Germans in 1945 sees itself channeled towards a group of child soldiers who have never even held a gun in their hands, been on the battlefield, let alone even seen a mine before.

When young Sebastian (Louis Hofmann) bravely starts confronting the Sergeant about their working conditions, he starts to understand that these soldiers, still innocent teenagers, shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of their country. But Rasmussen must now face the internal moral conflict of “giving in” to feeling bad for the boys, and fulfilling his duty of deactivating the mines on the beach whilst borderline torturing the boys. More so, he has to accept the orders from his superior officers, who criticize and threaten him for giving them any lenience. This internal struggle from Rasmussen’s point of view, coupled with the struggle and dangers of deactivating the mines from the boys’ points of view, results in a very captivating narrative that, although burns quite slowly, is a sophisticated drama with a very sharply written script all throughout. Roland Muller embraces the fact that his performance as Sgt. Rasmussen would make or break the film, and delivers with resounding success. The young cast is full of talent and Muller’s chemistry especially with young actor Louis Hofmann gives the film an elegant emotional touch which doesn’t feel forced or cliché.

The gritty and under-saturated look of the sandy beaches in Varde, Denmark make the film feel very genuine and visually quite captivating. The fact that we never see the boys anywhere but in the beach or their camp next to the beach, makes us feel the entrapment that they’re feeling, exponentially building up the angst of seeing the boys fall ill, starve and have to keep working, the insane numbers of active mines decreasing at a rate so slow, it seems hard to believe it’s an accomplishable task.

Although it’s already Zandvliet’s third feature, it will likely be his breakthrough film in mainstream cinema, as the film is set to be released in the UK sometime in the upcoming months. Europe is the birthplace of cinema and it continues to develop and provide a viable, and in my opinion, better, alternative to the Hollywood-dominated American film industry. It is understandably hard to sell a non-english speaking film to a mainstream audience, but as long as films to the standard of Land of Mine keep coming out, there will always be people keen to watch them.

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