Alison Blankenhaus on Martin Zandvliet’s ‘Land of Mine’ / ‘Under sandet’ (2015)
The idyllic, far stretching empty beaches of Denmark paint an emblematic picture that mirrors the tension between superficial appearance and hidden surprises. It seems that the most beautiful place might also host the cruellest conditions and, conversely, the most desperate situation might tell the most empathic story of human kindness. Martin Zandvliet’s intricate Land of Mine tells the story of fourteen adolescent German soldiers, whom the Danish government forces to defuse 45,000 mines which the occupying German military placed on the Danish shores during World War II. Under the supervision of Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) the German boys perform the dangerous task of clearing every inch of the beach, a task which forces each character to come to terms with their identity and place in history.
A reason for the film’s critical acclaim (and Oscar nomination) is the way director Zandvliet exposes the conflicting emotions of the individual from various point of views, whilst painting the larger picture of the political situation vis-à-vis historical guilt. Throughout the film the spectator is hurled between moments of subtle generosity and instances of appalling physical brutality. The outstanding performance of Roland Møller as the Danish Sergeant displays the conflicting emotions experienced when encountering and living with people from a different nationality commonly despised by Danes after WWII. The opening sequence exhibits the intrinsic anger caused by the war, when Rasmussen almost randomly stops next to a line of marching German soldiers, picks one soldier and brutally beats him up for holding a Danish flag in his hands. Zandvliet denies the spectator the chance to look away, the camera persistently framing the bloody soldier’s face being gratuitously pummelled in by Rasmussen. His rage is unreciprocated by the Germans, who are subjected to his power, unable to protect themselves from physical brutality. The soldiers are reduced to bare life, human beings outside of the law, excerpt from any protection. As Rassmussen exclaims: “This is my land, understood! You are not welcome here!”
With only a brief introduction to diffusing mines, the fourteen German boys are brought into this hostile environment. If you thought the volatile Iraqi setting of The Hurt Locker (2008) painted a nail-biting picture of being consistently on the verge of decimation for bomb disposal forces, consider the tension here. They live in a shed, if food comes it is sparse and every day they are woken by Rasmussen to tackle a seemingly impossible task. The mere prospect of returning home after three months is their only motivation. In this very degrading environment the tensions amongst the adolescents and towards Rasmussen are carefully played out. The film carefully constructs the understanding between the two point of views, which is most clearly portrayed in the relationship between Rasmussen and Sebastian Schuhmann (Louis Hofmann). Rasmussen increasingly takes pity on the group, who Rasmussen believes is “far too young” for the task. Although they are German, and hence the enemy, the boys are also portrayed as just that: innocent children. Many subtle moments in the film increasingly humanise the boys and display their fears, their hopes and dreams.
One such moment — a picturesque standout scene – occurs when the brothers Ernst and Werner Lessner (Emil and Oskar Belton) find a bug. The black creature crawls on their hands, but instead of passing their abusive experiences onto the small bug, the brothers fondly observe it, give it a name and thus pay him more respect than they are given. The close-ups, the orange sun-floated light and the peaceful score allow for some profundity and relief in a story filled with tension, violence and death. For instance, the tranquil mood of a free day comes to an abrupt halt when Rasmussen’s dog dies due to the explosion of a mine, which by accident was not found. As a result, he degrades and dehumanises one of the boys, making him fetch a ball like a dog. Again, personal loss and the search for a reason for the pain experienced in the war overshadow the fragile relationship of Rasmussen and the boys.
The spectator of Land of Mine signs up for an emotional roller coaster ride in which Zandvliet manages to dwell on and emphasise the complexity of conflicting emotions, whilst also painting a picture of historical guilt, simplified categorisation and subsequent cold brutality. Zandvilet’s portrayal of this subtle relationship is distinctly compelling because it manages to operate outside of good and evil binaries. Instead, the German boys are portrayed as victims and selfish at times, whereas Rasmussen alternates between generosity and irrational rage. The film thus displays a space in which relationships and identities are negotiated, destroyed and renewed.
By paying close attention to each character, Zandvilet warns against brutality which stems from premature prejudices based on a person’s involuntary origin. Departing from a romanticised, patriotic American-ised conception of WWII, the film distances itself from the current trend in which simplifications and categorisations rule and diverse perspectives are forgotten. The film asks the audience to look beyond the facade and recognise a larger, multi-layered picture in times of hostile prejudices. It poses the question to what extent we can dehumanise people according to their origin and reduce them to a state of animalistic, bare life. In a post-truth, prejudiced time, the film pin-points the ethical question which is in dire need of asking: to what extent can we judge someone according to their nationality and let them dig up the mines on our shores?
Alison Blankenhaus is a freelance writer and filmmaker.