From Arrival to Zootopia to Hidden Figures, this year’s Academy Award nominations were peppered with stories about The Other. Though very different films, each demonstrated the universality of people’s (or, in Zootopia’s case, animals’) reactions to the unknown: fear and stereotyping, usually, which often led to unfounded hostility. At least, that is, until they bridged the divide and tossed aside labels. Huh, the characters discovered that maybe The Others aren’t so bad.
The Danish Land of Mine, itself a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, fits right into that formula, while rarely seeming formulaic. Set in 1945 Denmark, writer-director Martin Zandvliet’s story tells of German POWs who are forced to dig up the approximately 2.2 million land mines that remain buried in the country. Few in the troop have ever seen a land mine; no one has ever diffused one. The soldiers all look like baby-faced boys, but that doesn’t stop German Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) from mistreating them and in general giving them hell. “Denmark is not your friend,” they were warned prior to meeting the sergeant.
Land of Mine—forgive the title’s terrible pun—is, of course, fraught as the soldiers begin their perilous duty. And it’s natural to wonder when the first mistake will be made. (It doesn’t take long.) You’ll hold your breath along with the young characters as they gently find and handle each explosive, and a flinch—at the very least—is to be expected whenever a mine suddenly blows. It’s understandable when one soldier cries for his mother after becoming seriously injured.
The sergeant, meanwhile, continues his tough love. He tears into a soldier who offers an apology after not answering a question to his liking; when they sleep, he locks their shack from the outside so they can’t escape. He doesn’t care that they go without food for days, even though the soldiers point out that they can’t do their jobs very well while they’re weak from hunger. They represent the enemy, and they will not be treated with kid gloves.
And yet when the sergeant catches some other officers further abusing the soldiers, he not only puts a stop to it but asks the officer in charge why he was sent “little boys” instead of men. As their numbers dwindle, he becomes more unsettled (though he’s still not above humiliating a guy whose error in counting the retrieved mines results in a casualty) and even softens. A mother who lives on the beach that the soldiers are clearing has a change of heart, too: When she hears that one stole some feces-laced grain that made everyone sick, she takes pleasure in “getting some Germans.” It’s a different story, though, when her little girl wanders onto the beach to play.
Though all the characters are heartbreakingly lived-in, the dust-covered kids aren’t differentiated enough to call out any of them individually. But the film is ever-so-slightly more focused on Møller’s sergeant anyway, and he makes his character’s humanity apparent whenever he’s not shouting in the soldiers’ faces. As the difficult mission continues, nationalities erase and sympathy emerges. It’s doubtful that Zandvliet made Land of Mine to reflect the divisiveness that’s now imbued the world. But his film is of the Zeitgeist anyway.
Land of Mine opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row.