A little-remembered chapter from WWII’s immediate aftermath in Denmark is dramatized in “Land of Mine.” Martin Zandvliet’s third directorial feature is a tightly focused narrative that can hardly help but build considerable tension and poignancy, given that it centers on Axis boy soldiers forced to remove still-live land mines that their side left behind at war’s end. Chosen as the kickoff feature for the Toronto Film Festival’s new juried Platform section — which Piers Handling’s stage intro defined as dedicated to “bold, innovative, challenging films from mid-career and emerging filmmakers” — it should parlay good reviews into decent sales among discerning offshore distribs and outlets.
When five years of German occupation come to an end in May 1945, Danish Army Sgt. Rassmussen (Roland Moller, “A Hijacking”) vents his pent-up rage on two unfortunates among the hoards of Nazi soldiers retreating homeward on foot. At least they’re headed away from him; not so lucky are the dozen assigned to his command for the next three months or so. Their job could hardly be more onerous, or perilous: neutralizing and removing some 45,000 landmines the Nazis planted on a local beach, among more than 1.5 million scattered along Denmark’s western coast in anticipation of Allied invasion.
So dangerous is this task that one of the POWs doesn’t even survive their brief training before they begin in earnest. Other mishaps will inevitably further winnow the ranks, though the Germans cling to the promise that if they survive, they’ll be sent home. Rasmussen makes no secret of his loathing toward the enemy combatants and his indifference to their fate — including their immediate starvation, as occupiers at the bottom of the priority list for scarce supplies. No friendlier is the woman (Laura Bro) whose beachside farmstead they’re camped in, though her little girl (Zoe Zandvliet) is too young to understand why these strangers should be shunned.
They’re probably closer to her age than Rasmussen’s, in any case: These Nazis are just boys who were recruited late in the war to bolster the dwindling Axis ranks. None appears to be on the far side of 20 yet, including natural leader Sebastian (Louis Hofmann) and cynical malcontent Helmut (Joel Basman). Others, like inseparable twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Belton), look barely ready for high school. Even the hardened Rasmussen can’t withhold all compassion from these terrified, homesick youths forever, though at a nearby base camp his sneering superior, Cap. Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), proves more pitiless.
There’s a faint sentimental predictability to the thawing of relations between captor and captives, as well as to the accident that refreezes that dynamic before a later redemptive turnabout. But Zandvliet’s script and direction avoid milking an innately loaded situation for excess melodrama or pathos, sticking to a discreet economy of approach that accumulates considerable power. Despite numerous explosions, just one is portrayed in gory detail, its horrific impact arriving early enough to effectively shadow the more restrained depictions of tragic violence that follow.
Though the opening and closing onscreen text underlines this obscure historical chapter as a human-rights case (it arguably violated international laws regarding treatment of POWs), “Land of Mine” is essentially apolitical, showing that at a long war’s end, both sides are simply embittered and exhausted. The German boys are sacrificial lambs very far from the criminal decision making of their Nazi superiors, while the Allied military and Danish citizens here struggle to regain any sense of empathy after five years’ occupation.
Though Zandvliet chooses to focus on a few principal personalities rather than dimensionalize all the characters here (several of the Germans never quite become distinct figures), performances are strong down the line. Very good assembly is taut while eschewing hyperbole, with notable contribs from editors Per Sandholt and Molly Malene Stensgaard; Sune Martin’s cimbalom-flavored score; and Camilla Hjelm Knudsen’s somber-hued lensing, which alternates between handheld immediacy and handsome landscape shots.
This accomplished feature should heighten its writer-director’s stature, though it does nothing to identifiably narrow his interests or style: A few returning key collaborators aside, there’s little here that one might connect to his deliciously prickly Paprika Steen-starring debut, “Applause,” let alone the glossy showbiz biopic “A Funny Man.”