Writer-director Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine treats a little-known chapter in the history of World War II as a jumping-off point to extol the tenets of masculine liberal humanism—and, needless to say, it’s been nominated for an Academy Award for foreign language film. Zandvliet modernizes his homage to Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion by infusing it with the narrative tension of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, dramatizing an operation to clear tens of thousands of landmines from a Danish beach after the German occupation of Denmark ends in defeat.
The dozen or so Germans charged with restoring the beach are uncomfortably young (they were conscripted by the Nazis toward the end of the war to boost the Axis’s numbers) and largely indistinct. In the film’s first scene, the audience learns that Rasmussen (Roland Møller), the Danish sergeant overseeing their work, is unwavering in his vitriol toward his former occupiers. From the outset, Land of Mine is concurrently about the nerve-jangling terror of bomb disposal and a grown man’s steady realization that revenge and resentment can themselves yield unseemly authoritarian tendencies.
Zandvliet handles the film’s action expertly, fixating on the shaky fingers of the young conscripts and ensuring that every grain of sand stuck in the mines is present in the sound mix. The filmmaker seems almost perversely interested in delivering the screenplay’s inevitable handful of explosions at unexpected moments, prolonging the wait for the first and delivering others off screen or from a distance. Land of Mine’s fitful jolts of suspense, however, can’t compensate for the story’s wholly familiar trajectory. Early on, the young German soldiers are underfed and latched inside a barren shack come sunset, after days spent plunging metal rods into the sand in search of land mines. As Rasmussen’s hostility begins to thaw, the sergeant gains the admiration of the youngsters while drawing the ire of those further up the chain of command.
Such a familiar chain of events is all well and good, but Zandvliet’s script is terse to a fault, refusing to venture any compelling or specific ideas about war or patriotism (as hinted at by its dopey new English title, the original of which translates to Under the Sand); instead, it leans on a time-tested and generic exploration of empathy, delivered with a pat strain of subtlety. The Germans occasionally pause to imagine their lives after this mission is over, but the film uses their youth to absolve them of their potential ideology, offering them little to say about life and work under Nazi rule.
Rasmussen is also written as a man without a past, his only hint of prior compassion being the fact that he’s a dog owner. These absences leave the film some room to explore man’s innate capacity for both camaraderie and cruelty, but Land of Mine only ever feels vital when it’s rather cruelly leaving viewers to wonder about the method, angle, and victim of the next mine blast.