Land of Mine [Under Sandet]

Martin Zandvliet
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Martin Zandvliet
Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman
Screening Date:
  • 15 Jan 2019
  • Categories:
    Drama, Historical, War

    Based on true events, this anti-war film is set in post-World War II Denmark. Young German POWs are forced to clear a beach with 1.5 million land mines, which leads to a situation that would be later be denounced as the worst war crime in Danish history.

    Film Notes

    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.

    KENNETH TURAN, Los Angeles Times, DEC 08, 2016.

    The obvious audiences for Martin Zandvliet’s heartfelt drama are Danes who seek the truth behind their country’s myths of wartime heroism, and Germans (the film is mostly shot in the German language) who might be drawn to examples of innocence or goodness in their nation’s years of shame.  This film could also tap into the huge audience for war epics, with a potential global reach thanks to its affinities with classics in that genre such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Grand Illusion, and Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land.

    At war’s end, some 1.5 million mines placed by the Nazis remained on Denmark’s west coast. Defusing them was a national urgency. Rather than use Danes who had sacrificed so much during the Nazi occupation, British liberators proposed that the Danish government deploy thousands of Wehrmacht POWs on Danish territory for the job. At least half of them died at that task from May to October 1945.

    Land of Mine isn’t the first account that suggests that the Danes committed a war crime. Nor is it the first examination of brutality against defeated Germans in 1945. What’s new is that those charges of Danish misdeeds are being brought to a wide audience in the language of epic cinema. Zandvliet (A Funny Man, 2011, Applause, 2009) picks up the story as a vengeful Danish officer assigns a stern sergeant (Moller) to manage a brigade of boy prisoners conscripted late in the war. Moller’s ox-like character makes that severity look a lot like sadism, until the cruelty of his British and Danish superiors and the deadliness of the job draw out his protective instincts.  

    Moller bulldozes his way from brutality to empathy, and the plot that probes the nuances of history soon veers into well-meaning inverted extremes of Allied evil and German innocence, as the prisoners operate under a potential death sentence and Danish commanders exploit captive labour.

    The depictions of vindictive Danes sending boys to be blown apart clashes with the accepted noble portrait of a country whose king refused to deport Jews from Denmark and wore a yellow star in protest. German soldiers portrayed as innocents who are as harmless as a kindergarten class may be a jolt to audiences accustomed to seeing them as invading predators and killers.  Yet the soldiers’ grim fate, borne out by the facts and observed at close range with a hand-held abruptness, keeps the film’s earnest sentimentality from over-flowing.

    Despite the sense of fatalism and some clumsy turns in Zandvliet’s script, Land Of Mine achieves moments of chilling suspense in scenes of untrained soldiers defusing mines by hand and in the bloody bodies that leap into the air when the boys fail.   

    The tension builds on the impressive composure of German and Swiss teenage actors (many of them already television veterans), including the endearing twins Emil and Oskar Belton – still not yet 16 – who play brothers who are captured in Germany’s dying days. With some adroit promotion, the young cast could be a strong selling point in German-speaking countries and beyond.

    The sand dunes of Denmark’s Skallingen peninsula (finally declared mine-free in 2012) are a huge canvas for cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, the director’s wife, who evokes a desert-like vastness reminiscent of a David Lean landscape for boys forced into a labour of futility. The motif of teenagers marching into those expanses drives home the grim truth that wars don’t end when the belligerent commanders declare the fighting to be over.

    DAVID D'ARCY, Screen Daily, 11th SEPTEMBER 2015

    What you thought about Land of Mine [Under Sandet]

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    41 (68%) 16 (27%) 3 (5%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 60
    Film Score (0-5): 4.63

    Collated Response Comments

    110 members and guests attended this screening with a hit rate of 55%. Land of mine is the most popular film of the season so far; surpassing the 4.48 for In Between and Loving Vincent.

    For many of you this was a film that was “beautiful to look at, uncomfortable to watch”. I lost count of the number of times the word harrowing was used in your comments. The following thoughtful very brief summaries capture many of your observations. “A sobering and important film. One of those films that will stay in the mind for some time. Fine performances”. “A very emotional and harrowing film – acting was excellent”. All comments are on the website. The following are slightly longer appreciations.

    “I found this rather uncomfortable to watch with the theme that anyone could be blown up at any moment. The initial scene of practising defusing mines was particularly tense. Once you got used to the fact someone would be blown up at regular intervals it became a bit easier viewing. It told a story I was not aware of, either the extensive mining of Denmark by the Germans, nor the use of German youth to clear them up at the end of the war. Perhaps it was a job that should instead have been given to the leaders of the Nazi movement or members of the SS. Thanks for another thought provoking film”.

    “You think you must have heard about all the horrors of war by now, but this appalling piece of history was new to me. From the opening scene the film took a hold of my insides and over the next 90 minutes continued to tighten its grip. Excruciatingly tense all the way through, you know another tragic event is coming but can't be sure when. The acting was exceptional, such realism from the Sergeant and from the young actors. Even the scenes that might be considered slightly clichéd when thinking about it afterwards (e.g. dog running off; child in danger; deliberate suicide) did not feel unnatural as I watched. The cinematography even felt strangely beautiful despite the subject matter. Whilst our sympathies are undoubtedly with the young boys, the film also challenges us to face the wider moral dilemmas: after 5 years of Nazi control and atrocities, of course the Danes were angry; and who should have been sent to clear the German mines if not the Germans? Morally there seems no right answer. I feel I could write a university dissertation to tackle all the aspects of this film - but you don't want that!”

    “An excellent piece. Hard to watch. The inhumanity of war clearly illustrated alongside the humanity of individuals caught in it. A sobering film that I am glad I have seen”. “Profoundly depressing.  Well shot, but in the end rather unconvincing as a tale about human nature”. “Must be the best, albeit the most harrowing film I have ever seen – in over 70 years”. “Probably one of the saddest films ever”. “Brilliant and devastating. Beautifully paced and filmed”. “Wow! A gripping, raw, emotional, shocking film. Incredible cinematography too!” “A very good film. Very poignant and very well acted”. “Moving if not totally convincing”. “Well acted, spare, very powerful”.

    “Worth a lifetime’s subscription to GFS. The most powerful and shocking piece of art I’ve ever had the privilege to engage with. I cried and raged all the way home but in the end I feel I have no right to judge anyone. I’m sure the Danes suffered horrible abuses under occupation but they still had a choice to not sink further. All life was here, humanity, the absence of humanity, pain, joy, revenge, love, despair. Beautiful to look at, uncomfortable to watch. It made me so angry that we may be about to trigger the beginning of the end of the European project. The very thing that was designed to bring us all together so that these atrocities would never happen again. Last night and today I am ashamed to be British. Thank you for sharing this film with us”.

     “There is, even in the most passionately anti-war film, still an element of glorification; 'Platoon' springs to mind. All of that is rendered null here as the war is over and the soldiers are not soldiers, they are children. The contrast between the stunning beaches and the grotesque task the boys are given is stark, the fury of the Danes is palpable, particularly in the form of Sgt Rasmussen whose British parachute regiment uniform suggests he's seen his fair share of the horrors of war. The return of his humanity with the boys, and the noble Sebastian in particular, and then realisation of the moral minefield in which he is trapped is convincingly acted. The cinematography in the crisp northern light is superb and the conclusion that revenge is a bitter dish best not served at all is brutally hammered home. As powerful a plea for sanity in the face of war as I have ever seen, comparable to 'Come and see' “.

    “Wonderful photography and acting”. “Harrowing, gripping, tense. A devastating but important film”. “Excellent acting”. “Great film. Very important”. “The most moving film I have seen here. Amazing!” “A brave portrait showing, with our hindsight, the futility of war”. “Very harrowing”. “Very moving and powerful”. “There are no heroes only victims in war.  An important film, tragic and hopeful in the change of the sergeant’s attitude”.

    “An incredible true story, wonderfully filmed. The boys were amazing actors as was the Danish soldier in charge of them. Man’s humanity to man won the day – a beautiful ending”. “A lesson to us all not to fight. Excellent”. “Powerful, shattering. Excellent development of the character of the sergeant. The horrors of war!” “I hated every minute of it scored Excellent”. “Brilliant”. “A very dark film showing the futility of war and the tragedy of retribution – no one wins”. “Very moving, very sad – very true”. “One of the best films I have seen. Beautifully acted”. “Harrowing to watch. a film that get at the heart of the matter with its direct and powerful style”. “An excellent sensitive treatment of a very shameful episode. Much better than I expected. Very good acting”. “Heart-breaking. Very well acted by such young men”.

    “A sad film. It showed an aspect of WW2 that I hadn’t know about”. “Very disturbing. Did not make for comfortable viewing”. “Powerful film. Strong performance form the sergeant. Beautiful cinematography of the beach – looked so calm but underneath the sand, not so calm!” “Very sad”. “A very close look at what duty means and how that changes when humanity and relationships present themselves”. “Harrowing. Amazingly good complex performance by the actor playing the Danish office”. “Very harrowing”. “How tense was this film”. “Beautiful film – but harrowing”. “A brutal film and not much fun. Memorable acting by the sergeant but his change of heart not quite believable”. “Harrowing”.

    We have placed cookies on your computer to help make this website better. For more information please click here

    By continuing to use this site or closing this panel, we'll assume you're OK to continue. You can view our full privacy policy here