Nothing focuses a film like the threat of a bomb going off. From Alfred Hitchcock's "Sabotage" to the Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," explosive devices that can detonate at any moment are intrinsically dramatic. "Land of Mine" makes good use of that plot mechanism, but it has a whole lot more going on as well.
Denmark's selection for the best foreign language Oscar and a triple winner at the European Film Awards, "Land of Mine" is a classic wide-screen World War II epic but with a number of unsettling twists.
Written and directed by Martin Zandvliet, "Land of Mine" takes place not during the war but just after it. And a key part of its plot involves not hardened combat veterans but young teenage boys, kids really, some no older than 15.
These were members of the Volkssturm, a German national militia created late in the war when able bodies were scarce. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, these youngsters were made prisoners of war in Denmark, a country livid with rage against all things German after five years of occupation.
Denmark was also a country where an enormous number of mines -- some 2.2 million, more than anywhere else in Europe -- were buried on the country's west coast because the German military feared an invasion of the continent might come through there.
Now it is May 1945, and some 2,000 German prisoners of war, many of them those teenage boys, were made available to Denmark to remove those mines and the Danes did not hesitate to say yes.
"Land of Mine" does not begin with anything bomb related, unless you count a veteran Danish soldier who so seethes with anger against the Germans it's close to terrifying to be in his presence.
That would be Sgt. Carl Leopold Rasmussen (the able Roland Møller in his first leading role), introduced glumly watching a group of older German POWs marching past.
Suddenly he sees one soldier trying to walk off with a Danish flag as a souvenir, and he goes ballistic, savagely attacking the man and screaming at him in German, "Get out, go home, this is not your flag."
After we see Sgt. Rasmussen demarcating an area of Danish beach to be cleared of mines, we are introduced to circumspect officer Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Flosgaard, King Christian VII in "A Royal Affair") who trains the young boys who are going to do the dirty work.
Teaching them first on disarmed mines and then using the real thing, Jensen curtly advises the boys not to waste time on self-pity. He canes them when they make mistakes, letting them know the error would have caused their death. He also tells them that "Denmark is not your friend, no one wants to see you here."
Though the boys are rather an undifferentiated mass during training, by the time they are moved out to the coast and placed in the sergeant's ferocious care, we are able to tell the key members apart.
Sebastian (Louis Hofmann) is the most mature, the de facto leader of the group, though the angry Helmut (Joel Basman) thinks he should be in charge. Wilhelm (Leon Seidel) is the most optimistic, while the twins Ernest and Werner Lessner (Emil and Oscar Belton, twins themselves) are full of plans for their postwar future.
These boys are part of a group of 10 or so who are responsible for an area where 45,000 mines have been planted just underneath the surface. Once they find and defuse every last one of them, the sergeant promises while verbally terrorizing them like the drill master from hell, they can go home.
Crisply and efficiently put together by writer-director Zandvliet, "Land of Mine" has the inherent edge-of-your-seat concern about what kind of damage the bombs will inflict on which of these boys, but it is the psychological qualities of the situation that hold the greatest interest.
For though Sgt. Rasmussen can be ferocious, it proves challenging to treat boys young enough to be his sons as if they were hardened combat veterans. All kinds of plausible crises and wrenching situations arise as individuals on both sides of the equation wonder how much shared humanity there can be in a world where personal feelings are treated as traitorous or worse.
'Land of Mine'
In German and Danish with English subtitles
Rating: R for violence, some grisly images, and language.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
Playing Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles.