Oskar Bökelmann and Louis Hofmann in Land of Mine (Photo: Sony Classics)

★★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Martin Zandvliet
STARS Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann

An Academy Award nominee this year for Best Foreign Language Film, the Danish import Land of Mine is a movie that affects the stomach even more than the heart or the head.

Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, it centers on a group of German soldiers tasked with removing all 45,000 mines that were buried along a Danish coastline in anticipation of an allied invasion that ended up not occurring there. Since the Germans were the ones who placed the bombs there in the first place, it stands to reason that they should be the ones risking their lives to remove it (“Better them than us,” notes one Danish officer nodding in the direction of the lads). In a just world, it would be members of the German high command who would have to manually defuse and dispose of all the mines – of course, this isn’t such a world, so those assigned the unenviable task are teenage boys who had nothing to do with the sickening strategy and who only want to return home to their moms. Indeed, that’s the deal given to these POWs (who number less than a dozen): Rid the beach of all 45,000 mines — a task that will take about three months — and they’re free to return to Germany.

Land of Mine targets the head with its messy morality. Certainly, someone has to clean the beaches, and if not these Germans, then who? The heart, meanwhile, is targeted through the various characters — specifically, Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller), the Danish sergeant in charge of supervising the prisoners, and Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hofmann), the natural leader among the kids. The hard-as-nails Rasmussen starts out not caring whether these prisoners live or die, but over time, he starts to view them as frightened, vulnerable children rather than merely the enemy. Sebastian, meanwhile, is the smartest and most sensitive of the boys, and he’s the one most responsible for Rasmussen’s eventual thaw.

As for the stomach, it’s affected for practically all of the film’s 100 minutes. The gut knots up every time one of these kids puts his hands on one of the land mines, since the nature of the story — confirmed by the historical tidbit at the end (half of the 2,000 German teens ultimately used to remove two million mines were killed or injured) — guarantees that not all of these baby-faced boys will emerge unscathed. Director Martin Zandvliet doesn’t shy away from showing the gruesome results of an activated bomb, and this makes for a particularly intense and unsettling watch. As for the ending, some will find it fitting while others will think it false — either way, it serves as a relief and a release for the audience, finally putting it out of its collective misery.

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