They surrendered to the Germans in mere hours, but when the Nazis planned to round up all of the country’s Jews, they organized and ferried them all to safety in Sweden.
That’s all that most people know about Denmark’s involvement in World War II.
“Land of Mine” offers a different view. It’s a military melodrama set in the days just after the war, when Danes forced the Germans trapped in their country to clear all the land mines from the beaches Hitler wanted to become “Fortress Europe.”
And since the last troops to occupy this generally passive country were the boys, Hitler Youth turned into troopers in the last year of the war, the Danes were sending children out to defuse mines, risking death or maiming in the process.
“If you’re old enough to go to war, you’re old enough to clean up your own mess,” is what the burly Sgt. Rasmussen (Roland Møller) is told by his superiors.
But as he and we can see, when you’re sending “little boys,” barely-teen-aged kids to do this, there’s something else to the psychology of it. Rasmussen, a paratrooper who served with the army in exile out of Britain, may “remember what they did to us.” But if the young Germans are being made to atone for their sins, Danish shame over their initial lack of resistance is one of the sins they’re digging up.
Martin Zandvliet’s film has an overly familiar story arc in which every possible outcome of a scene is telegraphed well in advance.
Rasmussen is harsh, cold and uncaring — working his charges half-to-death as they poke at the ground, remove and count mines one at a time, going for days without food on their remote Danish beach. We can see he will soften. Eventually.
Every mine-sweeping outing is fraught with peril, as kids from that shortest-attention-span age must perform a rote task with the utmost care, or kill themselves in the process.
Writer-director Zandvliet (“A Funny Man”) builds a sharp barracks pecking order among the boy soldiers, showing German discipline (they’re reluctant to escape their “duty”) and German ingenuity (methodical inventions for for efficient mine-clearing).
There are predicable moments of peril for a local child and a local dog, with the boys showing their humanity and Rasmussen recognizing it (or losing his own).
Møller and assorted kids (Louis Hofmann, Oskar Bökelmann) give sympathetic/empathetic performances.
But every story beat seems preordained, a variation of something we’ve seen in a dozen earlier WWII POW movies, right down to the football (soccer) game. That doesn’t mean that every death isn’t a shock, every sudden explosion a jolt.
The simplistic predictability of it is all that mutes the impact of this story of war guilt and survivor’s guilt, at least to viewers outside of Denmark. I can imagine it as having more a cathartic effect there.
And the humanity of the performances and pathos of the tale shine through the tropes and cliches to make this smart movie with the dumb-pun for a title a worthy enterprise and well worth your time.
MPAA Rating:R for violence, some grisly images, and language
Cast:Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Josef Basman, Oskar Bökelmann
Credits:Written and directed by Martin Zandvliet. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:40