The World War II drama, Land of Mine, has what sounds like the season's proudest, most patriotic title, but it's actually a dark pun — a reference to the more than one million land mines the Nazis buried on the Danish coastline, hoping to deter an Allied invasion.
Perhaps the strategy worked, since American and British forces landed miles away in Normandy on D-Day, but it left Denmark with a booby trapped west coast, and a logistical problem of staggering proportions. The coastline wasn't declared officially safe until 2012.
But it's the immediate aftermath of the war that interests writer-director Martin Zandvliet. As his film begins, the fighting is over, German soldiers are prisoners of war, and the Danes are putting them to work on tasks too dangerous for their own men. One Danish sergeant (Roland Møller) has been assigned one beach, 45,000 buried mines, and twelve German POW's to find and defuse them all.
POWs, as it happens, who are scarcely more than children. Some aren't even shaving yet.
"Are you soldiers?" he wonders, before deciding it doesn't really matter, as they're Germans. So they will clear the mines. And he figures that if they blow themselves up in the process, there's a rough justice in that. After five years of Nazi occupation, the Danes do not look kindly on Germans.
Movie audiences though, may feel a bit differently about these particular teenagers, seeing the terror in their eyes as they go through training, first with dummy mines, and then with live ones — successfully defusing them behind sandbags as the Danish officers bark instructions.
Then, just moments into the film, an explosion behind the sandbags knocks all the boys off their feet. If your palms weren't already sweaty, they will be after that.
Credit writer/director Zandvleit with finding a fact-based World War II story that's not been told, and told again. Also with keeping sentiment to a minimum as he keeps audiences unnerved — the boys lying prone on the beach, methodically poking metal rods into the sand inches from their faces, hoping against hope they won't hit anything. And then when they do, carefully scraping the sand away, unscrewing the top, and delicately — barely breathing — jiggling the detonator to free it.
At which point they're halfway there. They still have to detach the wires.
Zandvleit's film making is straightforward, his script understated, the acting credible, the suspense undeniable. Yes, you can predict some plot points in Land of Mine — the glimmers of compassion the sergeant grudgingly develops for the boys, for instance.
But then, recognizing humanity in someone you regard as your enemy, is a theme that's always timely, and could hardly seem moreso than it does right now.