In the final months of World War II, German forces buried more than 1.5 million landmines on the western beaches of Denmark. Germany believed that the Danish shore was one of the probable landing spots for an Allied invasion.
After Germany's surrender, Danish officials commandeered four thousand German POWs to remove the landmines. By then, most of the original occupying forces were dead or gone. The final wave of German soldiers sent to Denmark were mostly teenagers—children, essentially—conscripted by Hitler in a cruel last gasp.
This largely forgotten episode of World War II history is dramatized in the Danish film Under Sandet (Under the Sand), nominated for an Academy Award and generally acknowledged as among the finest Danish films of the last several years. For some goddamn reason, the film has been retitled Land of Mine for its limited U.S. theatrical release. What were they thinking? This film does not need a pun in its title.
On a cold and barren beach, fourteen boys are put under the command of Sergeant Carl Rasmussen, a tough and bitter Danish officer worn to the bone from the winds of war. By night, the starving POWs are locked in abandoned barracks. By day, they crawl on their bellies through the sand, poking ahead for the deadly mines. Untrained and despondent, they unearth the mines one by one, pulling out the delicate firing pins with hands shaking from fatigue and starvation. When the boys complete their task, they will be sent home. That's what they're told.
Director Martin Zandvliet has created both a classic war film and a powerful anti-war statement. The story doesn't go where you might expect and the imagery is startling. Under the cold sun, Zandvliet conjures a new image of hell as the boys squirm on the sand, tinkering with death. It's an unearthly environment, filmed in a washed-out palette of dead grays, dirty whites, and blood.
In the lead role of Sgt. Rasmussen, Danish actor Roland Møller presents a badly damaged man who is nevertheless still capable of growth. His initial indifference to suffering gradually fades as he realizes his assignment is not about duty, or reconstruction, or even punishment. It's about the kind of misguided revenge that can follow in the wake of war.
Rasmussen will eventually take risks to help his young charges, stealing food from the nearby army depot and developing some basic engineering techniques to improve their odds of survival. In one powerful scene, he sits with the de facto leader of the German boys and they marvel with despair at their circumstances. How did our species manage to arrive at this madness?
Inevitably, some of the mines are detonated. Like the POWs, we don't know when or where this will happen. Director Zandvliet sustains an agonizing surface tension, even as he presents quiet moments of kindness and grace. As the landmines pile up on the shore, each act of simple humanity takes on significance.
Understated and accomplished, Land of Mine employs many of the cinematic techniques of the classic war film while cultivating its own insights about the essential ruggedness of humanity. Like those tough seashore weeds growing in the dunes, human decency is actually pretty hard to eradicate, even under the cruelest conditions.