There are only these many stories in this world, and motion pictures are, forever, striving to find new angles or perspectives to age-old tales. Now, World War II and the exploits connected with it, both good and bad, have been filmed time and again over these 70 years after the Axis forces were humbled. We have had classics like Von Ryan’s Express and Battle of the Bulge among a host of other movies that narrated the valour of soldiers and their commanders, their victories and defeats. And there have been innumerable other works which had the war as a background to tell us about love and romance that flowered in those very dark times.
So, to make yet another picture on the war could not have been easy, not at all. And this is where Danish director, Martin Zandvliet, scores with his compellingly fresh story and approach. He presents in his Land of Mine -- which was part of the main competition in the ongoing Tokyo International Film Festival -- a bit of war history that is true but not well known, and possibly never been made into a movie. On a path travelled a million times or more, Zandvliet discovers or rediscovers a tragic episode and lights it up with beautiful sensitivity and feeling. One cannot miss the humanism that the helmer portrays through his taut narrative in the months when almost the entire world hated the Nazis and the Germans.
After the war ended in May 1945, German prisoners of war in Denmark were given a deadly assignment. They were ordered to clear the Danish coast of the two million land mines which the German army had planted in the mistaken belief that this would be where the Allied invasion would take place.
And the task of supervising the German prisoners is given to Danish Sergeant Rasmussen (played superbly by Roland Moller, who has a striking resemblance to Indian actor Rahul Bose). In what appears poignant and even cruel, most of the prisoners are teenage boys, who are terribly home sick, miss their mothers and cry out for them when they are wounded. Also, recruited in the last days of the war by Hitler to bolster his dwindling army, the boys are ill-equipped to clear the coast of landmines.
Watch Land of Mine trailer here:
Like most Danes, Rasmussen hates German soldiers, and he is cruel to the young prisoners under his command. Locked up at night, they are not given enough food and their work on the beach leads to one death after another, one tragedy after another. Even when a boy soldier is burning with high fever, Rasmussen does not give him an off -- and this causes yet another disaster.
Although the movie may be somewhat predicable, Zandvliet keeps the sequences going with subtle, yet powerful, tension, and Moller’s performance must be credited for this. It is interesting to see how he gradually stops to despise the boys, begins getting them food from the village. Finally, he keeps a promise he has made to the teenagers.
This touch of humanism makes Land of Mine greatly memorable, and the films conveys how at the end of it all, man will care for man -- not withstanding a Hitler or a Mussolini.
Admittedly, there may not be anything novel in men, soldiers in particular, recognising humanity in their enemies. French auteur Jean Renoir told such a story with brilliance in Grand Illusion way back in the 1930s. But the urge for compassion will perhaps never lose its importance, especially in the kind of hard times we all live in. Land of Mine reminds us about the immensity and nobility of being human -- above everything else.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Tokyo International Film Festival.)