Victims & victimizers

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday February 28, 2017
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In the Danish drama Land of Mine, a small band of German POWs, boys barely old and strong enough to hold a rifle, is ordered to clear a seemingly pristine stretch of beach along Denmark's Atlantic coast. The beach is deceptively inviting. Buried just below the white sand are 45,000 unexploded land mines, ordered put in place by Adolph Hitler, the German despot fearing an Allied invasion at precisely the point where American, British and Free French troops would have the shortest path to capturing Berlin. Writer/director Martin Zandvliet's empathetic drama pulls out all the emotional stops. It would take a cold heart to resist its well-crafted tugs on our sympathies. An important element of the film's power is its steadfast decision never to leave the beach. As long as the boys are trapped there on their bloody suicide mission, we are there with them.

Land of Mine delivers an epic story in 101 minutes. The cast, fresh-faced adolescent German newcomers, is uniformly excellent, particularly the Danish lead Roland Moller as the gruff, avuncular Sgt. Leopold Rasmussen, whose job it is to lead lambs to the slaughter. Of special note is the heartbreaking story of real-life twin brothers Emil and Oskar Belton, the fate of whom is the film's moral pivot. Also outstanding is Louis Hofmann as Sebastian, the natural leader of the German teen prisoners who manages to get to the sergeant's softer side by manipulating a religious symbol.

At first the 40-something sergeant, who has seen his share of action, is all business with his young charges, barking out orders, physically abusing the lads, inducing tears, then punishing the offenders for their inability to suffer for the crimes of their compatriots and their nation's mad leader. Soon Sgt. Rasmussen grasps that he has entered a moral kill zone where what he is inflicting on these boys will take an unacceptable psychic toll on him.

The tension ratchets up as a boy fiddles in the sand with disarming a weapon capable of destroying an armored vehicle. Just when we feel we can't take the pressure, the worst does happen, and we're exposed to the unbearable cries of a youth who has suffered a mortal wound but will not die soon. His comrades react to his pain and we see innocence defiled, with victims and victimizers rapidly exchanging places.

In a film that carefully rations out its big-speech moments, one comes when the sergeant appeals to his superiors on behalf of the boys, a few of whom have been sickened by eating vermin-tainted grain. Leaning over the desk of his commanding officer, Rasmussen metaphorically switches from the role of an old war dog to that of a representative from Amnesty International.

Sergeant: "These are small boys who cry for their mothers when they are afraid, whose legs and arms are being blown off."

Officer: "They are German, Carl, and if I hear one more thing about small boys, I will go down there and shoot them myself!"

Director Martin Zandvliet exposes us anew to the moral stakes when human beings cross the narrow line separating victims from criminal abusers. Land of Mine shows how quickly humans can change from hunters to prey, and how souls, moral high ground and the fate of innocent children can be sacrificed before the return of our better natures.