Land of Mine (Under Sandet)

Land of Mine starts quietly, with the sound of breathing. Soon someone roars with anger. A Danish officer. He launches himself with fury at marching German soldiers, beating them. World War II has just ended, and Denmark faces its German prisoners of war with bitter resentment.

The POWs are about to face a new hell on the sandy beaches and dunes of Denmark’s West Coast, under vast skies luminous even under massed clouds. The war is over but it is not yet peacetime for them. They are to clear landmines, and more than half of the prisoners will come to die or suffer atrocious injuries.

The suspense is at times almost unbearable. The story starts to grow in complexity, the moral dilemmas compelling. All while wondering when and if a landmine will blow up. Several do and each time it is a shock. This makes for a gripping and haunting film, tautly written by director Martin Zandvliet, and beautifully photographed by cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen. The intense light of the North Sea coast illuminates each frame, in strong contrast – sea and sky and sand strongly distinct, and the emotions of the characters clear to see – the strong light washes nothing away, every detail is picked out.

The story is based on historical fact. Denmark had been invaded by Germany very early on in World War II. Its West Coast was of strategic importance, a possible D-Day landing point across the North Sea. To impede this, Germany laid over two million landmines on Denmark’s beaches. Now the mines must be cleared. Who should do this? Britain, who’d liberated most of Denmark, supplied its German POWs, in breach of the Geneva Convention. The immediate aftermath of long and savage war no doubt resulting in a combination of moral fatigue, pragmatism and ruthlessness. But also, as it was reasoned at the time, if not the Germans, who else should do this terrible and dangerous work? Shouldn’t those who have caused the harm be those to undo it?

The moral ambiguities increase. The prisoners selected to clear a particular stretch of the coast turn out to be children, boys in their teens enlisted as Germany was going down and had run out of grown men to fight. They are to be supervised by a Danish officer, Carl Leopold Rasmussen, brilliantly played by Roland Møller. He is the officer seen earlier beating German prisoners. He treats the boys harshly, cruelly; they are told they have three months to clear 45,000 mines from the beach, at a rate of 6 mines per hour. After that, he promises, they can go home. Home is likely a pile of rubble, and the boys’ families possibly all dead. The boys know that. But hope sustains the children, even as some of them acknowledge it is unrealistic, and that likely Rasmussen will not release them as promised.

Rasmussen’s anger and cruelty waver; he finds himself in a double-bind. The boys are German – they are the enemy; they must clear the mines – someone has to; he has to control them – he is outnumbered by them; if he doesn’t exert psychological dominance – they could get the better of him. And yet: they are children, starving, terrified, and he knows that a good number of them are destined to die or be maimed, blown up by a landmine hidden in the sand.

Roland Møller plays this complex set of emotions beautifully and convincingly. The powerful tension between resentment and compassion, rage and something that is almost paternal love for his waifs is heart-rending, especially set against the constant jeopardy his charges face and that he enforces. In one particularly cruel scene, and which is based on historical fact, the POWs were made to link arms and walk together across the stretch they’d cleared, to test for mines that might have been missed. A coldly pragmatic verification method, which at the same time multiplies potential deaths.

Increasingly, Rasmussen feels responsible for the boys’ welfare. He is the only one to do so. Others hold a firmly manichean view. The children are evil because they are German, and are thus the enemy. There is nothing good to them. As such they are de-humanised. In one telling scene involving British troops, the children are abased, moments from summary execution.

The performance of the young actors is remarkable in its immediacy and un-sentimentality. Louis Hoffman, who plays Sebastian, the natural leader of the group, offers a nuanced approach to a difficult role, as do twin Emil and Oskar Belton.

The German writer W.G. Sebald has written about the collective amnesia a whole country can experience, after the unspeakable has happened, and which then lasts for a generation or two before someone gathers the pieces of the story and speaks up. This is also the case when the unbearable has been done. Denmark has experienced such a speaking up twice in recent years, and each time this awakening was triggered by a walk in a war cemetery.

In 2005 a Danish doctor, Kirsten Lylloff, caused a national controversy. She had noticed in a graveyard near her home a considerable number of children’s graves – the children were all German war refugees and had died very soon after the Second World War, many of them very young, under the age of 5. Her research led her to an unsettling discovery. 80% of German child refugees under the age of five had died while in Danish internment camps, and almost all the children who had been under the age of two. Lylloff established that a major contributing cause was that the Danish Association of Doctors had decided in March 1945 not to provide medical care to German refugees unless they presented with infectious diseases which would be a danger to the Danish public. Subsequently the Danish Red Cross also declined to step in, citing concerns about anti-German public sentiment. Lylloff found that the majority of child deaths were due to starvation, malnutrition and easily treated illnesses – deaths which could have been prevented.

Less than a decade later, the director and write Martin Zandvliet made a parallel discovery while researching his new film on mine clearances. He’d intended to make a film about the Danish Pioneer Corps, who’d supervised those German POWs clearing unexploded mines on Denmark’s West Coast. While visiting war graves, he noticed how young the German POWs were, many of them in their teens. He mentioned in a Hollywood Reporter interview “I was walking between the graves, checking out the dates, and I saw just how young these Germans were who got blown up. Fifteen-, 16-, 17-year-olds. Just kids.”

Zandvliet’s discovery has turned his film, a Danish-German co-production, into something far more interesting, complex, an emotional depth-charge. It is a very well told story, absorbing and intelligent. The film is not about the futility or absurdity of war but about a country’s legacy. It sets a question, a very difficult question. In the aftermath of war, what do you do with your enemy – and with your enemy’s children?

Writer & Director: Martin Zandvliet
Cinematographer: Camilla Hjelm Knudsen
Cast: Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Emil Buschow, Oskar Buschow, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Emil & Oskar Belton

Originally published on Screenwords, August 2017.