This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month(It was supposed to be December but Liam is very late), it’s Willa Rae’s turn to do the damage. Here are Liam’s thoughts on LAND OF MINE.
Land of Mine manages to tell a story from World War II of which I had no prior knowledge. Just after the war ended, millions of German POWs were forced to clear mines off the coast of Denmark, and many lost their lives in the effort. Often, when telling a war narrative, especially about either of the World Wars, films lean towards one of two tendencies. One is the most obvious model, the standard heroes story. The allies, forces for righteousness and good, against the forces of fascism. The other is a more nuanced look at the enemy, one in which the forces allied against us are made up of both humans and monsters, and have internal conflict and strife. This is not an iron clad description, but a pretty accurate representation of the general trend of these films. They exist often either to remind us of the heroism and valor of our fallen soldiers, or to help us understand how seemingly normal people might become the force for destruction we opposed, with some variance on context and theme.
Land of Mine attempts to tell a different kind of narrative. The film, by focusing on young German POWs in Denmark forced into the dangerous work of land mine removal, creates the opportunity to see the human issues underlying armed conflict. The story begins with Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (brilliantly embodied by Roland Møller), an angry veteran of the war who we see berating German soldiers as they are being marched into detainment areas. He is asked to supervise a group of POWs who have been tasked with removing hundreds of thousands of mines from a stretch of beach. He is hostile at first, but over time managing such a young group of soldiers (many of which seem no older than 15) wears on him and he finds himself making compassionate decisions about them almost against his will.
In this task of allowing us to see an historical event beyond our own connections to the conflict at hand, Land of Mine is largely successful. The film need not outline for us why the people of Denmark might be enraged at these German interlopers, and while we are often horrified at the lengths to which their anger might take them, and the ways pain and trauma might result in cruelty, it is always from a place we understand. Rasmussen himself is angry, and it is only in his prolonged presence with these youth that he begins to be softened by their — and his — humanity. It is here, though, that aspects of sentimentality begin to enter in, and thus draw away from the narrative. There is a moment where one of the young POWs saves a local girl, and while this is entertaining and emotionally engaging, it is pretty obvious melodrama designed to make these young men sympathetic. In this way, the film shies away from perhaps its most interesting notion, the mines themselves.
Despite flirting with melodrama, the film is still at times cruel and unflinching in its violence and emotional toll. This is possible only because the performances across the board are so exceptional. These characters are not just sketches nor stereotypes, easy options for a cast of this size; each of these young actors are given unique people with their own issues and experiences to inhabit, and it is their authenticity and power which allows the film to work as well as it does. In the end, we believe and feel the transformation, the pain, and the hopelessness of the film because we believe them. The cinematography is understated despite the beautiful location, and even with its long beaches and horizons, manages a kind of claustrophobia I could not have predicted. This feeling, that despite the picturesque locale we are trapped here with these adolescents as they risk their lives day after day, is incredibly powerful. Of course, it is not just powerful visually; the script itself maintains such a tight, small world that we feel the sense of being imprisoned that they do. This mission is non-negotiable, and the soldier must choose between certain death and probable death on a daily basis. When the utter futility of their experience begins to crush them, I felt it, too.
Of course, Land of Mine is not just a historical film, but also a film with some kind of message. Inevitably, a film like this is positing an ethic, an anthropology, even in many cases a cosmology as far as it places the signifigance of human suffering withing a particular larger context of meaning. This story is fiction, but the context of the story is historical, and the melodrama and struggle of that narrative forces a reflection on that conflict and the issues within. These German youth are not merely agressors, not merely prisoners, not enemies alone, they are human. These young men have loves and desires and identities and they are as confused by the circumstances placing them on this beach, doing this work, as any one else in the film. The audience, in light of these all too familiar nuances, cannot help but feel for them, for the injustice of this forced labor, for the ways the complications of politics and history have made their lives so utterly disposable. Someone, somewhere might care what happens to them and how they end up, but no one who can do anything about it does.
This sympathy then is designed to help us see the illogic and injustice of war, even when the circumstances of history might cause us to identify as the just within a given conflict. Justice, on this logic, cannot possibly be about becoming the monster, forcing young innocent boys to clear deadly mines. The sergeant functions as our foil; we see his anger and his growth, and when he ends up feeling for these youth we feel victory, something in the world is now different and we can rejoice. The problem is that this dynamic maintains a sense of superiority, a feeling of earned goodness, which is understandable, but not useful for overcoming the issue of war itself. When we see the issue of justice as being too good to stoop to our enemies’ level, we must continue to deny the basic humanity and identity of the enemy. This is understandable; enemies like the Nazis are not deserving in any real way of our compassion. This must not be missed. The problem is not that the enemy is secretly good, but rather that they are in many ways just like us. This does not then justify the causes for which they are willing to kill and do evil; no, it is a reminder that we too kill and do evil, and seing the evil we do is not in and of itself a virtue.
Land of Mine reveals the shallowness of this ethic by its reliance on the youth of its central figures. This is likely historically accurate; there were in fact many youth drafted in Germany toward the later part of the war. However, this film cannot function without this appeal to the audience’s understanding of innocence. This is in the script itself, as our Sgt. Rasmussen is moved almost immediately by the age and relative inexperience of these soldiers given to him for such a harrowing and dangerous mission. This is not just an historically accurate script decision, though surely it is also that, but an admission of the paucity of our moral imagination. The mines which were left in the millions were real, and represented a real and undeniable victimization of this land and people at the hands of another. The evil done by Germany as a collective society cannot be denied here simply because it is not of the depth of horror committed elsewhere. The reality of this problem, even without the moral evil that is represented by these mines, is that Denmark still has the very real and dangerous problem which could result in even more death and destruction. This does not, though, lessen the horror of the initiative itself, taking these defeated soldiers and forcing them to risk their lives and well being to clear these mines.
This is how the film then must inevitably fail, though only in this one thing. It is still an incredibly well executed and moving melodrama which highlights a real struggle for humanity and compassion. Without this film, would I have even known about this event, or would I have been ignorant to it and the suffering it pertains to? Yet the film cannot look squarely at this issue by giving us a less sympathetic version of the scenario. These young faced children, these not yet men, must remind us of a kind of inferiority, translating the story into a question of the old and the young. Why must these children, who could not possibly be to blame for the death and destruction of their parents, why must they be made to suffer? However, it cannot answer this question because the reply must always be: if not them, then who? Who will clear these mines? Who will make the world safe? Who will take on the burden of death hidden beneath the sand?
If the mines might be seen as violence itself, if not realized than the potential of death, waiting to be unleashed, then the film cannot in fact hazard an answer. Land of Mine can quite rightly manipulate our sympathies by reminding us that many innocent, or at least sympathetic young men, were sacrificed to the war. It cannot, however, help us answer this other question; it cannot show us the older, more seasoned soldier. We cannot look into the face of the one who we do not sympathize with, it must play into our assumptions about our own goodness without forcing us to question them. What would it mean to give us a scene where we could not assume the innocence of the one being forced, without will or consent, to remove the threat of destruction? One must then not only question the practice, the mines, or the age of the POWs, but the war itself. One might even ask what underlying assumptions, forces, ideas, and most importantly, ideologies, would lead to the nightmare scenario of millions of mines placed along a beach head. The question might come long before this trap was set, let alone once we have decided to force those we have named enemy to clean it up. To get there though, we must see not only the humanity we share, but the inhumanity as well.