It is undoubtedly true that when the Danish film industry decides to look at their war (World War I or II or Afghanistan) they do so unflinchingly. In Armadillo, also shown in a previous London Film Festival, the film crew followed a military unit, were embedded in fact through various engagements, and it only went badly wrong when one of the units sent video footage back to his mother…not a good idea!
In Land of Mine [Under Sandet in Danish], Martin Zandvliet has taken an episode from the end of World War II which does not show Denmark in a particularly good light, but from it he draws a lesson from both retribution and reconciliation. The English translation is an intentional double-entendre, the film is both about the Danish identification with their land, and about land mines. This comes in the JOURNEY Section and is all the more remarkable because it is a Denmark-German collaboration.
The facts are these: during the Second World War and the German Occupation of Denmark [who were strictly speaking neutral as part of Operation Weserübung: Germany invaded both Denmark and Norway ostensibly as a counter measure against a Franco-British occupation of Norway] and as part of the counter-offensive, 1.2 million land mines were laid all along the Danish coast and since no invasion came in that direction they were all still live and dangerous after the end of hostilities. Possibly contrary to the rules of war, German prisoners – many of whom were young men and even boys – were used to clear the mines. They were given a basic training in identification and defusing and then sent out on to the beaches. 2000 German prisoners were engaged in this operation, more than half were either killed or mutilated or severely injured.
So Land of Mine begins with a Sergeant Rassmussen driving furiously down a road along which march German prisoners on their way back to their defeated and destroyed country. One foolhardy soldier has taken a Danish flag as a souvenir, enraged Rassmussen (Roland Møller) leaps from his vehicle and beats the man to a pulp, just short of killing him. “This is my land” he cries.
We then meet Lieutenant Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) training a group of prisoners on recognition and defusing of mines and ultimately they are tasked with defusing the real thing, one mistake and you are dead. Nearly all of them make it through the test.
Rassmussen then gets to meet his team. He obviously hates them with a passion, he shouts at them, hits them and generally intimidates them and finally takes them to the beach where the mines lie. The serene beauty belies the death-traps under the sand, soft white sand blows bewitchingly from the curve of the dunes, a pristine whiteness curves away into the distance marred only by barbed wire and anti-landing devices. The work begins. This stretch has a map and there are 1200 mines to find.
This is not The Hurt Locker, these young men were in uniforms with no protection from the fatal mistake, just a belly crawl across the sand with a stick, identify the mine and defuse, hopefully successfully. A horrible task, dangerous and slow with a bully for a master, added to this there is a food shortage and prisoners of war are low on the food chain. For several days they are given nothing to eat at all, eventually the self appointed leader, Sebastian (Louis Hofmann) goes to the sergeant and says they cannot work with no food. The troop are based near the beach they are clearing in a barn belonging to a woman and her daughter, Elizabethe. Rassmussen sees the logic, although he gives a brutal answer – Germans cannot expect food when Danes have little or none. However, he does go to the military depot and gets some bread and potatoes. This results in another ugly incident led by Ebbe, and he and Rassmussen have a stand-off which redounds horribly towards the end of the film.
The relationships between the Germans and between the sergeant fluctuate, but he comes to respect them even to like them until a missed mine in a cleared area kills his dog…
I would imagine by any standards that this practice was wrong, even if understandable. This film captures the rage but it is hard not to feel more strongly for the prisoners of war. Rassmussen’s team are all very young, some do not look older than 17 and none can have been more than 20, they do not appear even to have begun shaving and in a way this was a weakness – even if there was a measure of retributive justice in making them undertake this clearance, one simply could not feel anything but horror at it. They did not look as though they could possibly have been in the war for more than a matter of months.
This is a harrowing, brutal film. The breathtaking beauty of the cinematography manages to increase the tension – using close head-shots of the embittered sergeant yelling at his band and panning shots of an apparently tranquil landscape until towards the end of the film the drama ratchets up yet another notch…
I followed this film, after a short break, with The Daughter, an Australian reworking of Henrik Ibsen‘s The Wild Duck. Re-located into an Australian setting and updated to modern times this films deals with an age-old conundrum of life: truth and lies – land mines of a different sort.
As well as altering the location, Simon Stone (Director and Screenwriter) has changed most of the names, except that of the daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young) and altered the central premise of Ibsen’s play. Here, Christian (Gregers) returns after a long absence to celebrate his father’s second wedding to his housekeeper, a woman young enough to be his daughter. Henry (Håkon) played by Geoffrey Rush. Christian hooks up with an old school/college mate Oliver, which leads the wifelet to think he is avoiding her, but eventually Christian and his father have a massive and audible row in which his father’s philandering seems to have led to Christian’s mother’s suicide.
Christian’s own partnership seems on the slide, partly as a result of his drinking, which he has had under control – that is until she fails to turn up for the wedding party and dumps him, this leads to a massive binge and some unfortunate truth telling…
Sam Neill plays Oliver’s father, Walter (Old Ekdal), he has taken the wrap and gone to prison for some financial skulduggery involving Henry’s company – in this film a logging/wood supply firm, and it is Walter who has the rescue zoo where the wild duck, shot in the first frame, is nursed back to health.
There is a lot to be said for updating Ibsen’s play from 1884 to 2015, some of the creaky wrinkles have been ironed out and replaced with newer more contemporary issues. The pivotal moment in the drama, however, is very different from the original. It completely changes how one views Christian’s behaviour, which while strategically damaging with disastrous consequences for his friend’s family, seems somehow more excusable in a horrible way. There is a degree of ambiguity in Ibsen which is totally lacking here, while Ibsen’s unambiguous ending is here more nuanced…
The film works on many levels but what brings it to the sticking point is the marvellous, sombre pregnancy of the music by Mark Bradshaw. Although nothing much appears to happen for the first hour or so, the music vibrates with foreboding right from the first bar.