Released in Denmark in late 2015 as Under Sandet (“Under the Sand”), writer/director Martin Zandvliet’s World War II drama Land of Mine almost deserves the clunky, Anglicized title it’s been saddled with for American audiences. There are few surprises buried in its compact running time, offset by a couple of moments any savvy filmgoer will spot well before they arrive. It’s only due to the tension wired into the plot and the wisdom of its casting that it avoids ignominy.
The story zeroes in on a little-known wrinkle of the Western Front: Once the war ended, the Danish military forced hundreds of young German soldiers to stay behind and clear the millions of land mines that were stuffed along the coastline. Zandvliet puts us amid a gaggle of these filthy, starved troops, shakily defusing each munition on an otherwise gorgeous beach under the brutish command of Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen, played with a stiff mustachioed upper lip by Roland Møller.
It’s not a matter, then, of if any of the Germans will get blown up, but when and how many. Does that make it any less stressful to watch these tiny hands precariously unveiling each mine and removing each detonator? Of course not. Nor does it make the moments of calm, when the gruff Rasmussen starts to soften toward his young charges, in any way heartwarming. The next blast is mere moments away.
To double the impact of these explosions—and the soldiers’ wistful thoughts of getting back home—Zandvliet fills the cast with actors who look like they’ve barely hit puberty. Listening to one youngster pitifully wail for his mother after his limbs have been blown off is one of Land of Mine’s powerful statements on the inhumanity of war. It may be made with the subtlety of an unexpected explosion, but the aftereffects are harrowing and lasting.