Starring Roland Møller. In German and Danish, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
Untold stories are now as rare as the unexploded land mines left behind more than 70 years after the end of World War II. The Danish-German coproduction Land of Mine (the original title translates more poetically as Under the Sand) focuses on a forgotten coda, with German conscripts forced by Danish authorities to remove and defuse millions of mines left behind on the beaches of Denmark, where an Allied invasion was mistakenly anticipated in 1944.
By the time the Wehrmacht retreated the following spring, most new recruits were either old men or teenage boys. Stragglers were dragooned into cleaning up this ordnance—a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, but containing a certain rough justice for a brutalized population. Younger soldiers form the centre of this tense, Oscar-nominated tale, although they are commanded by a Danish resistance fighter, a hardened sergeant wearing (without explanation) the uniform of a British paratrooper.
For reasons not divulged—nor do they need to be—Sgt. Rasmussen (the excellent Roland Møller) has an almost sadistic hatred of the former occupiers. This and his perfect command of the German language put him in charge of the exceptionally youthful squad, quickly taught the lethal basics of finding and defusing mines.
Obviously, they lose some rookies right away, but the sergeant’s hungry group is lucky to have a mine map. And they have a natural leader in blond, blue-eyed Sebastian (Louis Hoffman). The other youngsters to stick out are softhearted twins (Emil and Oskar Belton) and a slightly older soldier (Joel Basman) seemingly more tainted by their Nazi upbringing.
Rasmussen can’t keep up his hardass thing forever, of course, and writer-director Martin Zandvliet works a little too hard to add conflict to an already sufficiently tense setting. (Some is connected to his own small daughter, who plays a child living near the beach our boys are clearing.) The sometimes manipulative film is perhaps too opaque regarding its own moral context. But its steel-blue skies and dispassionate view of men clinging pointlessly to masculine codes do get under your skin. The explosions are terrible, and so is everything else left behind by war.