'Land of Mine' at TIFF is a strikingly different World War II story

ScreenerBlog

The late Roger Ebert once wisely observed that "movies are like a machine that generates empathy." At their finest, they place you within the personal experience of someone you might have considered your exact opposite or completely alien from your existence. Danish director Martin Zandvliet's Land of Mine, which screened this morning at the Toronto International Film Festival, creates tremendous empathy for a group you'd be predisposed to despise: German soldiers just after the Allied victory in 1945. But these are very young soldiers—mere boys, really—tasked by the Danish army with defusing some of the 1.5 million land mines buried in the sand on Denmark's West Coast. The scenario is by nature a nail-bitingly tense one—one wrong move and a mine will explode—but the film is gratifyingly much more than an exercise in suspense, it's a rich character study and a moving story of human connection.

We first see the film's lead character, Danish army sergeant Carl Rasmussen (the excellent Roland Møller), punching and beating a captured German soldier who's dared to take a Danish flag as a souvenir—he's clearly not a man to be messed with. And initially, as he trains the quaking young Germans who've been forced into that very dangerous land-mine assignment, he's just as cruel and pitiless. As the German boys call out their names, you initially think they're going to remain fairly anonymous and interchangeable. But individual personalities do emerge: the ethical and level-headed Sebastian, the hotheaded Helmut, and identical twins Ernst and Werner, who dream of getting rich from the bricklaying business they plan to start once they return home to their decimated country. When Helmut steals tainted feed from a barn for his starving comrades and they become horribly ill, Rasmussen's cold facade begins to crack. By midpoint of the movie, he's playing football with the boys on the beach.

Without overstating its thesis, the drama makes the point that war exploits the innocence and susceptibility of youth; no doubt some of these boys entered the war consumed with hate, but their tender age indicates that most of them had no choice as a desperate Germany forced them into combat. And, startling for a film by a Danish director, the sadism of Rasmussen's commanding officers is indistinguishable from that of the Nazis who occupied their land.

The subject matter may sound dreary and off-putting, but Land of Mine is a rewarding and humane film. It's the opening feature in TIFF's new juried "Platform" section focusing on "bold, innovative and challenging films from mid-career and emerging filmmakers." The festival has chosen well and I hope Land of Mine finds a well-deserved home with an American distributor.