Roland Moller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Oskar Bokelmann, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard. Directed by Martin Zandvliet. Rated R. 100 minutes. 2017.
The men must scour the shore for landmines that their fellow soldiers laid down to trap the enemy. It is slow and grueling work, and the catch is that these are not actually men. Many of them are boys, these prisoners of war, and the hard men that lord over them care not a lick if they live or die. The sergeant says so, repeatedly, including after a bout of hunger in his workers and even when one of them catches ill, vomiting into the night and unable to stay awake for very long. The workers must use poles to prod the ground at intervals of roughly six inches, and the process to defuse the mines is simple in theory but unthinkably tense in practice. It’s a potentially hopeless life that is led by these young men in Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine, but the writer/director doesn’t wallow in it.
That’s an important achievement, because it means the characters are able to be and grow as characters, rather than needing to supply fodder for a message movie. This is, quite decisively and effectively, an anti-war polemic, but it doesn’t have the anger of the usual polemic. There are no blustering speeches raging against the System for sending these boys into a war they hardly understand. The situation is harrowing on its own terms, and it doesn’t need the burden of such acidic political statements. The realpolitik here is inherent in the story Zandvliet is telling, although the film does supply melodrama of a different kind by way of the story framing the situation. It loses some of its potency in those stretches, but that also matters less than it could have. The urgency is still present.
Some of the young men are essentially interchangeable, although a few of the interchangeable ones are afforded a personality trait (or, if they are lucky, two), such as one boy whose hands are so shaky we are never sure that he will survive. The job, after all, requires a steady hand. The ones who are not so interchangeable act as our entryway into the story. Sebastian (Louis Hofmann) wears a cross that reminds him a father whose fate he does not know, and he’s the one who readily stands up to their commanding officer on behalf of his brothers in arms. Helmut (Joel Basman) is the eldest and the makeshift leader of the young men, but his squirrelly attitude and conniving ways are a constant source of punishment for the whole group. There is a pair of twins, Ernst (Emil Belton) and Werner (Osker Belton), so one must only count the minutes until the pair are separated.
The commanding officer is Rasmussen (Roland Moller), and the focus on him is where the film occasionally stumbles. He begins with contempt for the boys, whom he sees as nothing more than another group of German soldiers worthy of death. “Better them than us,” says his own superior officer Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), and Rasmussen’s look of concession to the point says it all. That sense of murderous superiority shifts quite radically, albeit slowly, when deaths occur (The craftsmanship in showing us the aftermath of a mine explosion is effective and somber, even after we start to expect it by way of a cleverly framed shot) and especially when Jensen abuses his power to humiliate the boys. The film essentially becomes another drama about a stern teacher who learns to warm to his students, although Moller’s performance is good enough that it doesn’t hurt the picture too much.
And that’s especially true when everything else is as effective as it is. The emotion might push a bit too hard in such scenes as a silly game of soccer, scored to some flowery compositions, but it’s a stark outlook elsewhere. Every scene in which the prisoners much go forth with their mission to find and defuse landmines is rich with tension and unpredictability. No character is safe here, and the stark presentation of the violence at hand is utterly compelling. Also effective are performances that, every one of them, are convincing and precise. There is not a single actor here that makes a misstep. The sense of focus in Land of Mine is less assured, but the drama is in the pitiable nature of a war that forces boys to fight as men and, if not fight, die without dignity.