In 1945, Germany ended its occupation of Denmark, leaving hundreds of thousands of land mines buried on the beaches of that country’s western coast. The dangerous job of clearing them was given to German prisoners of war, a punishment that seems at once intuitively fair and obviously cruel. That ethical tension — between justice and vengeance — is the subject of Martin Zandvliet’s “Land of Mine,” a tight and suspenseful film that is one of the five nominees for the foreign language film Oscar.
Filled with picturesque, windswept shots of sand and surf, “Land of Mine” focuses on the fate of about a dozen young captives, some of whom look more like boys than fighting men. They are billeted in a shack near a coastal farm, under the command of Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller), a Clark Gable-handsome martinet with a square jaw, a neat blond mustache and very little patience.
Mr. Zandvliet doesn’t flash back to the sergeant’s wartime experiences. He doesn’t need to, since Mr. Moller’s haunted eyes and weary countenance make it clear that his character has witnessed and suffered terrible things. In the first scene, driving his jeep past a column of retreating Germans, he pulls over to attack one who is taking home a Danish flag as a souvenir. Rasmussen’s hatred for his defeated enemy is boundless. “I don’t care if you die,” he tells his young charges, who work long, hazardous shifts on the edge of starvation.
But the war hasn’t extinguished his humanity, and “Land of Mine” is partly the story of his awakening compassion. He requisitions food for the prisoners, leads them in a friendly soccer game on a stretch of beach that has been cleared of explosives and tries to protect them from the abuse of his superior officer, Capt. Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) and other Allied soldiers.
It might be easier for a viewer to forgive the victors for holding a grudge than to forgive their intended victims, however innocent and vulnerable those young men may seem. Mr. Zandvliet stacks the deck in making Captain Jensen as cold and sadistic as any central-casting Nazi, and in portraying the Germans as terrified, ordinary kids. Their complicity with wartime horror lies beyond the film’s scope, which makes its exploration of postwar moral ambiguity feel incomplete.
Still, “Land of Mine” is an interesting addition to the growing roster of recent European films — Paul Verhoeven’s queasy “Black Book” may be the best-known example among American audiences — that search out the grayer areas of World War II and its aftermath. Mr. Zandvliet is less interested in the stark battle between good and evil than in the shifting ground of power and responsibility, and the way that every person carries the potential for decency and depravity.
He tackles these themes in a way that is both effective and conventional. The ever-present danger of an explosion — and the certainty that someone is going to be blown up at some point — creates an undercurrent of dread that the director does not hesitate to manipulate. He takes a messy, murky reality and wraps it up into a compact narrative that is just a little too neat.
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