War films are notoriously grim to say the least. From Apocalypse Now to Schindler's List to Dunkirk, there's inevitably a darkness and sadness surrounding the events in the World Wars and beyond, and it's a really difficult subject matter to address with any different angle these days. And yet the well keeps being drawn from in various ways to varying levels of success. It's that essence of realism and true devastation that makes war a prime candidate to adapt stories from. Arguably there's no better story to tell than the hope and determination of those that put their lives on the line out there. It's not just those moments on the battlefield however but the impact on everyone's lives after such events and how different the world looks.
Land of Mine takes that approach and uses it to great effect. The story focuses on the period directly after World War II and the loss that many suffered. There are two sides to every story and whether you were on the winning or losing side of a war you came out of it mentally and physically scarred and it's that struggle that we see on show here. Danish director Martin Zandvliet takes on one of the lesser talked about stories that took place after the war in which the German Prisoners of War went to Denmark in order to clear mines - hence the film's title. This isn't something that is spoken about very often and so Zandvliet has managed to do a rare thing and find a rare approach to war film making.
With Denmark liberated the cleanup began. Clearly nothing returned to normal overnight and it's not just the emotional toil that takes a long time to get over but the efforts to return the world back to normality too. Whether it's the destruction of buildings or something as simple as weapons and land mines all over the place it took many months and even years in some cases to stabilise countries again. Land of Mine is a shocking piece of war film in that these people have come through what they believe is the worst and survived unspeakable situations and yet here they're put right in the firing line again. It obviously raises questions as to the behaviour of the Danish higher-ups and their decision making in terms of putting these people out there and risking their lives but with such anger between them and the Germans it's almost no surprise.
The situation itself is enough to create a tense atmosphere and the film is very violent in places but it's hard to know as a viewer how to feel about the characters. We get no real background on the POWs or on the Danish army men such as Rasmussen (Roland Møller) and Capt. Ebbe (Mikkel Følsgaard). We're thrown right in and see how the POWs are treated as the enemy and the Danes are the good guys who have every right to be angry with the Germans. Land of Mine presents an interesting debate here and as the film goes on their treatment comes into question and the army men start to second guess their behaviour and whether what they're doing is right.
Rasmussen’s developing relationship with the boys is the main focus and it’s his inner turmoil and struggles that really drive the story. He sees how they are treated by his colleagues and feels like they take it too far and the comradery of these youngsters despite everything being against them seems to inspire him to take a different view on life. It’s not all smooth sailing however and there are moments where his old beliefs return to the detriment of those around him. Malnourishment, poison and life-risking moments all build up to challenge the boys and break them down and there is only so much they can take.
Land of Mine is a difficult watch. The scenes range from tense to downright uncomfortable and scary. It gets to the point where you're actually just watching it waiting for the next person to be blown up. There's a horrific inevitability about it and you start to wish that the Danish men would back off because it's all too much. Of course these are men that have been through battle together and you just don't know how you'd feel in that position, but Zandvliet directs the story in such a way that there's a more humane element to it beyond the obvious divide of Danish vs German. The story builds to an emotional finale that works well but again would have more of an impact if we just knew the characters a little better.
All in all, Land of Mine is a credible entry into an oversaturated genre and a solid attempt at bringing something new to the table. It's impossible to address every issue and Zandvliet doesn't delve too deeply into ethics or morality but on the whole Land of Mine manages to retain the expected impact despite its faults. The movie has done fantastically well at a number of festivals since 2015 and its entry into UK cinemas and on demand means it will finally get the wider audience that it deserves. Dunkirk may be getting all the plaudits and attention at the moment but if you have a chance to see Land of Mine then it certainly deserves 90 minutes of your time. Just don’t expect an easy ride.