Martin Zandvliet’s Oscar nominated film does what we pretend Oscar nominated films are supposed to do: When we go low, it goes high. Though, as Americans, we struggle to find nuance in any cultural artifact—let alone in our everyday lives—we’re apt as ever to, regardless of where we plant our flag when it comes to such issues as the morality of punching Nazis, divide the world into black and white, especially when reality fundamentally resists. A film like Land of Mine reminds us that either morality is relative and we’re all just doing the best we can in this difficult world, or that everyone is a terrible sack of shit and the universe is indifferent to our poorly constructed standards of what’s good and what isn’t. Everyone has a fair chance to die in an explosive mess of viscera—Hitler Youth and your beloved Border Collie alike.
It’s 1945 and Germany’s surrendered—Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller), a well-shaped moustache with a broad vendetta to fulfill, beats a teenage German POW to a pulp and then heads to the Danish West Coast to begin to map out the long, slogging campaign to rid the country of its more than 2,000,000 mines. That first scene alone is filmmaking at its leanest, a perfection of storytelling in which we understand immediately the rage and resentment clutched to the chest, like Rosary beads, of those left to clean up society after the Germans took it apart. There is violence and there is innocence, uncomfortably smashed together, in these brief opening minutes, and that tension is carried throughout the rest of the film. The German kid has no idea that taking a Danish flag is wrong, but Rasmussen won’t let him forget his mistake, taking out all his postbellum injustice on the child’s babyface.
Like The Hurt Locker spliced with Saving Private Ryan and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Land of Mine follows carefully from that moment of unmitigated brutality further into treacherous moral terrain. Rasmussen takes charge of a small group of barely-trained teenage German POWs, standing by while they starve and each day attempt to fill their impossible quota of dismantled mines, tasked with clearing their particular stretch of Danish beach from the thousands of abandoned death traps in order to earn a trip back home.
With striking precision—as well as with some tips from the cinematic school of giving too many characters, especially in a war film, a distinct personality—Zandvliet makes each terrified teenager a specific human being, from the obvious moral center of the group (Louis Hofmann as Sebastian), to the angry kid with a golden heart (Joel Basman as Helmut), to the twins (Emil and Oskar Belton) bound by archetype to have their bond broken by tragedy. Throughout the film, as each day brings a new sense of weariness to compete with the overarching travesty of it all, Zandvliet creates stakes without binding the characters to any sense of moral imperative: These people are at the mercy of their basest emotions, a weird phenomenon that war both reveals and denigrates. In turn, Rasmussen begins to view his charges as innocent children, not as fascistic demons, which clashes with the orders of his war-blind superiors.
Since this is a movie about children crawling through the sand to remove live mines with their bare hands, every second—save that punchy opening—is brimming with overbearing tension, an explosion forever one slight twitch or hair trigger away. While that tension keeps Land of Mine gripping, there are also plenty moments when a base knowledge of film language (the motionless wide shot, the brief onset of silence, the characters discussing their future much too giddily) telegraphs catastrophe to the point of expectation. Like in The Hurt Locker, the fear that everyone will die eventually reconciles with the intuition that most everyone will die, jading any viewer into adopting a sixth sense for whatever bad stuff will happen, so that by halfway through Land of Mine you’ll probably have a good idea of who’s going to blow up and when.
Still, Zandvliet leads the highest caliber of successful Oscar bait—in that it was nominated, but also in that every performance here is deeply felt and quietly heartbreaking—crafting Land of Mine into a measured, often beautiful meditation on moral relevance. It may be a modern war movie (about a non-modern war) through and through, with all the genre tropes that come with such a designation, but its anachronism is showing: Even when it comes to dissecting the last Great War that demarcated stark lines between the forces of Good and Evil, Zandvliet’s film refuses to see anything but a sad, tender no man’s land.
Director: Martin Zandvliet
Writer: Martin Zandvliet
Starring: Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Emil Belton, Oskar Belton, Mikkel Følsgaard, Laura Bro
Release Date: February 10, 2017
Dom Sinacola is Sr. Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.