You know those films that have such bracing, bold introductions that you’re utterly convinced a quarter hour in that you’re about to see a great film? But instead, what you get is an entirely decent movie that can’t help but feel disappointing in the face of those raised expectations. Land of Mine – which had its Australian premiere at Sydney and is the featured centrepiece of the upcoming Scandinavian Film Festival – is one of those films, promising excellence and delivering adequacy.
The film’s title has two meanings. The first is about post-war nationalism, as vividly realised in its cold open, where Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) brutally beats one of a parade of defeated German soldiers. The soldier’s crime? Clutching a Danish flag. ‘This is my country!’ yells Rasmussen at the miserable troops, ‘You understand?’ In the wake of the viciousness of World War II, the sergeant’s vehemency is understandable, if uncomfortable.
But soon the title’s second meaning – a pun that presumably only works in its English release (its Danish title is Under sandet/‘Under the Sand’) – is revealed, as writer-director Martin Zandvliet shifts focus to a grubby crew of barely-grown German POWs conscripted to clear Danish beaches of German landmines. A tense training sequence, as the boys are tasked with defusing their first set of live mines, demonstrates Zandvliet’s confidence behind the camera. Watching someone attempt to defuse a potentially-lethal device promises the classical kind of suspense suggested by Hitchcock’s bomb under the table, and Land of Mine delivers. It’s heart-in-your-throat stuff even before you come to develop any sympathy for the ragtag German soldiers.
When the Germans are placed under the authority of aforementioned Sgt. Carl, the stage is set for a nuanced consideration of post-war reformation and nail-biting suspense. It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the challenges of WWII’s aftermath than clearing a beach of explosive devices: you’ve got ex-soldiers clearing away still-dangerous wartime relics from a country’s borders while grappling with racism, nationalism and economic realities (eg that POWs tend to be last on the list when it comes to rationing out food).
What keeps Zandvliet from living up to the promise of his premise (drawn from historical fact, as the closing titles remind us) is the predictability of the narrative. Cinematographer Camilla Hjelm and the cast – particularly Møller – do great work, but the path they trek together towards common humanity etcetera is a deeply familiar one. Some familiarity can be forgiven; when one German eagerly rattles of his plans for life once he returns home before pretty well immediately blowing himself to kingdom come, it’s a cliché with a hint of truth to it. I imagine drifting off to think about girls and jobs while faced with a landmine can’t help your concentration. But when almost every subsequent death – and there are many – are preceded by similar “What are you going to do when you get home?” chats, it starts to grate.
Despite the grimness of its subject material, Land of Mine tends to opt for simplistic optimism over nuance. It’s necessary to the story – both in of itself and as a representation of post-war politics – that Rasmussen’s hatred towards the POWs softens into something approaching affection. And, to the film’s credit, it doesn’t rush this transition.
But while it largely succeeds as a human story, particularly in how it develops the bond between Rasmussen and one of the soldiers (Louis Hofmann), Land of Mine increasingly obviates the specifics of mending national wounds by emphasising the villainy of Rasmussen’s commanding officer (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing that carries over to the film’s uneven conclusion, which awkwardly – and unsuccessfully – attempts to pair realistic pessimism with simplistic optimism.