"If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to clean up their mess."
For Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller), vengeance has grown on trees inside his soul due to the cost of war. It's May in 1945, near the end of World War II, and the Germans have surrendered. But the war isn't over for some people. When we first see Carl, he is fuming in his military jeep as he drives past German P.O.W., and the rage has taken over his body. He abruptly stops, beats up a couple prisoners, and screams at the others to get out. "This is my country," Carl proclaims, and that is how the powerful "Land of Mine" begins.
The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars this year, and I can tell you why: it is a striking piece of cinema that won't let you go for days. I saw it five days ago, and I am still brushing the story off my conscience. Independent (especially foreign) displays a freedom that most American films simply cannot on average, and this film is the latest example of its power. The dialogue is unleashed in Danish and German subtitles, but the moral of the film never gets close to being lost.
Writer/director Martin Zandvliet casts a spotlight on the unknown fallout of WWII: the aftermath of the carnage and how certain countries committed tragic war crimes in order to rid their country of the weapons of the trade in the months following the surrender of Germany. The story centers on Rasmussen and the 14 German prisoners that are assigned under him to dig up land mines along the western Denmark coast line. There's just one thing; the prisoners are young men, kids even.
The heavyweight hook of this tale (which was inspired by the true story) is the unlikely bond that develops between the hardened Rasmussen and the kids as they attempt to defuse 45,000 mines in their zone/sector. Zandvliet's script is twofold with regards to that relationship, and it is not rushed nor full of melodramatic tendencies. Rasmussen hates the boys at first, because he sees them men who destroyed his country and the toll blinds him at first from seeing the actual age and innocence within the boys.
The movie's commentary on the rigors of war is very well done, and leaves you asking questions among yourselves about where it is socially and morally acceptable to feel compassion towards your enemy. Should Carl merely treat the boys like adopted soldiers or attempt to reason with his own tortured soul, and find a middle ground?
Let me tell you this: Roland Moller is a magnetic presence here and anchors the action. A convicted criminal in real life up until the age of 30 before music and movies became his life, Moller draws on his rebellious past to craft a character literally at war with himself. Rasmussen is equal parts tough, tender, and eventually, poignant. It's not an easy role to play, because it requires multiple speeds from the actor, and he has to flip on a dime. Watching Moller as Rasmussen in this film is like watching a monstrous chunk of ice be hung outside a house where just a small amount of sun can hit it, so it's a slow thaw. Moller is an actor to watch, and his muscled physique and vulnerability towards the boys is subtle and not overplayed at all. Bravo!
The young actors hold their own with the larger than life Moller, especially Louis Hofmann, who plays Sebastian Schumann. Sebastian is one of the older kids who assume a leadership role within the group, and he is the first one to reason with Rasmussen's soul. Joel Basman and Oskar Bokelmann are also potent as scarred young souls who haven't crept close enough to manhood to understand the meaning of what they are doing. By the end of the film, every single character is tested and bruised.
"Land of Mine" works well as a drama and a thriller-just wait for the moment when the kids start to dig up the land mines, and you cover your eyes in anticipation of the first explosion. Several of the kids die, and Carl is tested unlike any other time in his life. As I sat and watched in the audience, I swayed between the point of view of Carl and back to the outlook of the boys. This is the rare film that gives one the opportunity to acknowledge both sides of a war.
There were over 2,000 young boys in charge of defusing up to 1.5 million land mines along the western coast line of Denmark, and Land of Mine tells a small part of that story. This movie will enlighten you about a rather unknown aspect of war, test your conscience, and make you think.
Thanks to Zandvliet's brave filmmaking and storytelling coupled with Moller's powerful work at the head of the table, Land of Mine is a film that will soak up real estate in your soul for a few days. The rare yet potent connection between thought provoking history and cinema's finest attributes.