Digging up Nazi mines

Land of Mine
Written and directed by Martin Zandvliet
Rated MA 15+, 101 minutes
4 stars

At the end of World War II, the western coastline of Denmark was riddled with 1.5 million mines – both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines – a gift from the occupying German Army. Now defeated, their soldiers were ordered to leave immediately, but the new British occupiers came up with a simple but brutal plan: those that put the mines there should remove them.

No-one bothered to mention that it was against the Geneva Convention to put prisoners of war to dangerous work. The British invented their own logic: these were not POW’s but ‘voluntarily surrendered enemy personnel’. And since the German engineers knew how to defuse all the different types better than allied soldiers, they could do the work. About 2600 German soldiers were set to work in May 1945, although most were not engineers.

In Martin Zandvliet’s gripping, disturbing film, the fact that it was a British decision is not mentioned. An opening scene shows a Danish officer stopping his jeep beside a ragged column of German soldiers, laying into one of them with unadorned hatred. That establishes the mood.

This is Sergeant Rasmussen (Roland Moller), who will take charge of one of the first groups of de-miners. When they arrive, he is unmoved by their youth: they are Nazis and he will make them pay. In fact, they are boys, aged between 15 and 19, most of them pressed into the ranks in the last months of the war.

Rasmussen herds them into a makeshift farm shed by a beach, locking them in at night. By day, they inch across the sand on their bellies using steel rods to feel for mines. The training is rudimentary. When they have completed a designated area, before it is declared mine-free, he makes them line up in close formation and tramp across the cleared area. It’s a way of making them concentrate.

Land of Mine pulls no punches in its depiction of the depth of Danish hatred for the Germans at war’s end. The woman who runs the farm laughs when she realises the boys have all become sick from eating food she put out for the pigs. It was full of rat droppings, she says. She’s paid to provide food, but the boys are starving. Sgt Rasmussen has to steal food from the nearby army camp to keep them going – the first sign that his animosity might be cracking.

The film is immensely gripping, but its biggest asset is its sophisticated humanity. These boys barely saw a shot fired but the war has so profoundly enraged the Danes that they are prepared to cast them to the wolves, both for vengeance and practicality. To allow a war crime, in fact, which was the central accusation of a book from 1998 that may have inspired the movie. There is no mention of Helge Hagemann’s Under Tvang (‘Under Duress’) in the film credits, but the film’s Danish title (Under Sandet, or Under the Sand) seems to point that way. Hagemann’s father was the main Danish officer in charge of the teams. His son, a jurist, charges that many more died and were maimed than the Danish government has acknowledged. He labelled it a Danish war crime.

The film has thus been controversial in Denmark. Many of the soldiers were not boys, but men who had fought on various fronts, according to one Danish soldier who worked on the task. Most of the Germans volunteered for the work, because they were promised they would be allowed to go home sooner. If they survived – and many did not. It’s a savage tale, handled with skill by Martin Zandvliet and cast. It was Denmark’s official nominee for the best foreign-language film Oscar.