THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"LAND OF MINE"
Land of Mine, nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film at this year's Academy Awards, is a movie of immense power, and also one of the best war-themed films I've ever seen. It takes place right after WWII. A group of German POWs are brought to the Danish coastline, where they are forced to dig up the two million land mines buried there. They must do so using their bare hands and metal rods that help prod the sand.
The man in charge is Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller), a Danish officer who resents the Germans and can't wait to get them out of his country. Every day, he leads the POWs to the beach. They are not grizzled soldiers; they are young men, most not even out of their teens. Each of them just wants to go home, yet they must first perform a perilous task – one that will take months and certainly claim at least a few of their lives. Two of them, Ernst and Werner Lessner (Emil and Oskar Belton), are twins. Rasmussen gradually overcomes his initial disdain to empathize with them and the others, as the inevitable accidents happen.
Writer/director Martin Zandvliet brings skillful efficiency to the telling of this tale. He shows in painstaking detail how the men learn to defuse landmines, then clearly illustrates how vast and overwhelming the job is. Scenes show the young men inching their way down the beach, nervously probing for, and then disassembling, the explosives. They barely have time to breathe after safely defusing one mine before their lives are gravely in danger once again. Zandvliet frequently has his camera capture the scope of the beach, just to emphasize the enormity of the task, as well as the ever-present peril. That gives Land of Mine a nerve-jangling quality that keeps you on edge for its entire 100-minute running time.
A psychological element is also strongly present in the movie. In one scene, a row of POWs is working diligently on the beach. A mine goes off, blowing an unlucky individual's body into pieces. The others know it could have been them, and might still be. They are not allowed to grieve or “take a minute.” Their only solace, if you can call it that, comes at the end of the day, when they get a few short hours' reprieve from the horror of the task at hand. The film makes you feel the burden of knowing that, over the course of months, the odds of any one of them making it out alive is small.
Land of Mine also gets at the way Rasmussen comes to view things differently. He is initially a dictatorial leader, utterly unconcerned with what happens to the people he's in charge of. Time passes, allowing him to see their fear up close, in addition to their anguish whenever a colleague is blown to smithereens. Faced with that intense display of humanity, he grows less able to think of them as the enemy. Their pain becomes personalized, forcing him to drop the dehumanization of the “other” that is part and parcel of war. Moller does a superb job showing how the character changes.
There's so much to chew on in this film: the technical look at how mines were dug up, the idea of teenagers being forced to fight and die in older men's wars, the portrait of a hardened military officer learning to see beyond preconceived (or forced) notions of the people he has previously fought against. Land of Mine is absolutely riveting from start to finish, both on a thematic and a visceral level. It tenses your muscles and engages your mind simultaneously.
( out of four)
Land of Mine is rated R for violence, some grisly images, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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