Harrowing film shows dead end of nationalism

A scene from Land of Mine depicts a teenage POW clearing mines.
Friday, July 14, 2017

Land of Mine
Written & directed by Martin Pieter Zandvliet
Starring Roland Moller & Mikkel Folsgaard
Nordisk Film

Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s multiple award-winning 2016 film Land of Mine is harrowing viewing. But it is not to be missed by anyone interested in issues of war and peace — or in fine films.

The cinematography is brilliant, with long, sweeping shots of the huge seas and skies of the west coast of Denmark underlining the stark horror of the story that unfolds.

The film is set in Denmark in 1945 following the capitulation of Nazi Germany. The opening scenes depict an endless column of German POWs trudging down the long road home, guarded by resentful Danish soldiers.

Almost instantly, there is a scene of shocking violence when Rasmussen, an embittered Danish paratrooper who appears to have fought with an Allied airborne unit, brutally assaults a defenceless POW.

“Get out of my country!” he screams, punctuating his words with savage kicks and blows. The POW’s “crime” was to have a Danish flag in his possession.

From here, the film jumps to the fortunes of a small group of teenage POWs, who are being prepared for forced labour defusing mines.

Denmark’s western beaches were sown with about 1.5 million anti-personnel and anti-tank mines — hence the pun in the film’s title. The Germans, a Danish officer speculates, may have feared an Allied landing there instead of in Normandy.

Clearing the minefields was an enormous, painstaking and terrifying undertaking. It had to be done to make the beaches safe; but the question was how and by whom?

Zandvliet’s film has lifted the veil of silence from what many believe was a major war crime committed by the Danish authorities.

At the suggestion of the British liaison officer Major Holland Stanley, about 2000 German POWs were put to work defusing the mines. Of these, 149 were killed outright, 165 were seriously injured and 167 were “lightly” injured, although “lightly” could mean the loss of an arm, leg, hand or eye.

The story was forgotten for many years. If raised, the official Danish line was that the POWs were volunteers skilled in the detection and defusing of the mines. This view was challenged by the Danish jurist and historian Helge Hagemann in his 1998 book Under Duress.

Zandvliet agrees with Hagemann. In the film, 14 ill-trained teenage German POWs are forced to find 45,000 mines by the primitive process of poking steel rods into the sand. If they strike a detonator, they are killed or maimed.

The film’s tension is relentless. Mine detectors were invented during World War II, but the Danish authorities had a cheaper way of doing it. They used young German men. If they accidentally missed one of the mines, they had to walk the line abreast at gunpoint over the suspect area of beach to detonate any others lurking in the sand.

Only four of the 14 POWs are alive at the film’s end. Half-starved and subjected to unrelenting mental and physical abuse, one mutters: “They might as well put us before a firing squad.”

At the time, the Allied authorities and most civilians assumed that the German people as a whole were collectively guilty of the Nazi crimes. Sergeant Rasmussen, the Danish NCO directly supervising the boys in the film, certainly believes this. He tells them that he doesn’t “give a shit” if they live or die.

They are Germans and he doesn’t need to know any more; they have invaded “this land of mine”. If Rasmussen wavers in this belief, his constipated martinet of a senior officer insists on strict compliance with orders.

And yet, despite himself, Rasmussen comes to see that his charges are human beings: kids who scream for their mothers and dream of home and safety, young men with whom he can share a game of beach soccer and who are capable of great courage, as when they rescue a little Danish girl who has wandered onto the minefield.

Whatever else they may be, these young men are not little Nazis or moral pariahs because of the accident of their birth. In one of the most moving, yet understated moments in the film, Rasmussen and one of the POWs sit side by side at the edge of the beach; Rasmussen clearly having developed a liking and respect for the boy.

When Rasmussen asks about the boy’s father, he replies that he doesn’t know if he’s dead or alive. It’s understated, but plain that the NCO experiences a sudden epiphany: but for the difference in nationality the boy could be his own son. They have a shared humanity regardless of nationalist dogma.

Land of Mine is not on the Australian blockbuster circuit and there were only a handful of people in the cinema when I saw it. Stunned, none of us moved from our seats at the end, and a number of people were crying. The emotional impact remains long after you have left the cinema.

What a pity that the film does not enjoy a wider audience at a time when the drums of war are beating so insistently.

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