LAND OF MINE
(2015, Martin Zandvliet)
[4 out of 5 stars]
[Scandinavian Film Festival 2016 // http://scandinavianfilmfestival.com]
[Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics]
Pure anger opens the film as protagonist Sgt Carl Rasmussen (Rolland Møller) yells at a parade of German soldiers as they leave Denmark at the end of World War II after occupying the country for five years. He notices one of them carrying a Danish flag and out of anger he brutally beats him until his face is covered in blood.
The atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during the war are well-known and have been depicted on film from numerous perspectives but it’s in the aftermath of the second World War where less known and scarcely documented stories emerge. I was not aware of the fact that Denmark used young German soldiers to clear the mines from their land. By young, I mean young enough that they call out for their mothers when they’re hurt or scared. Young enough that they look like boys playing dress-up as soldiers in their uniforms. Young enough to not have a clue what actually happened in the war.
Wide shots show them huddled in groups or forming a line while close-ups reveal their weary faces - a kind of weariness that should never be found in the face of the young. It reminded me of Haneke’s THE WHITE RIBBON a film set pre-WWII, showing the faces of young Germans (the same generation that would eventually become the Nazis) barely concealing the simmering rage they are holding within. It’s a rage that stems from being treated cruelly and without kindness. These two generations of young faces, one immediately following the other, show the cycle of conflict - the eye-for-an-eye mentality. It starts and ends with children.
Sgt Rasmussen is in charge of the young boys and at first he treats them with the same hatred he treated the soldier in the opening scene. He doesn’t feed them for days, forces them to work despite illness and ignores their cries for help when a mine severely injures one of them. But their boyish innocence sweeps away the cloud of rage and he sees them for what they really are - victims. Like he is. All are victims of a war decided by a small group of men in a room. His cruelty eventually gives way for kindness and if it wasn’t for this, it isn’t hard to imagine these boys turning their enduring of cruelty into seeds for future rage - like the children in THE WHITE RIBBON. Though this particular story is a fictionalised account of a real event, it’s a hopeful thought that someone, somewhere acted like Rasmussen. Who did the right thing and added a drop of goodness in an ocean of hatred and destruction.
Postwar films forces viewers to grapple with the nature and purpose of conflict: what was all that for anyway and why do we keep doing it? It shares the same level of nail-biting scenes like in another war film, Kathyrn Bigelow’s THE HURT LOCKER where scenes of men - or in this case young boys - deactivate explosives in unbearably long sequences. These moments are suffused with silence, intensifying the sound of the blasts when they eventually ignite. But its moral complexities is akin to Bigelow’s later work ZERO DARK THIRTY as both films, even though they are about two different wars, examine the difficult responsibilities and subsequent guilt placed upon the men and women involved in conflict. Maya and Sgt Rasmussen are inherently good people but their righteousness is suppressed by their willingness to commit acts that one would consider deplorable in normal situations but in the context of war seem defensible, even necessary. But the bitter and frustrating truth is that human beings, generation after generation, forget the futility of war. It’s neither defensible or necessary.