We love to hate the Nazis—Inglourious Basterds, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler's List. They're the most reliable bad guys in cinema. And, as World War II and Denmark's Nazi occupation ends in Martin Zandvliet's Land of Mine, they're the most reliable bad guys to Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen. Land of Mine opens on Carl beating a surrendered and retreating Nazi soldier to a pulp.
We mind, but not too much.
Cue the German boys and Zandvliet's chosen untold true story of WWII — the Danish military force 2,000 young, surrendered German soldiers to clear nearly two million German mines from the beaches of Denmark. Half survive.
The middle-aged Sgt. Carl receives command of a dozen such baby- faced Germans to rid one Denmark beach of its 45,000 mines. Through his early cruelty, he keeps them uniformed and in strict military formation. But uniforms quietly slip into plain clothes, and lines, into free-form playing boys who mirror the lush, rolling landscapes of Carl's beloved Denmark. Predictably, Carl lacks the wherewithal to enforce the starvation and mistreatment of his Nazis subordinates once he sees them as mere boys, who already fear daily they will be maimed or killed by mines. The boy soldiers become his sons—he steals food for them, plays with them, and forgives them. The only real question becomes the lengths to which Carl will go to protect them.
Zandvliet tells his unknown story through unknown actors (this was the feature film debut for most of the boys). This casting choice provides us a fresh start, access to a new and unexpected world where mistreatment of Nazis ushers us out of a theater in tears and silence. German or Dane, the characters are unavoidably human, capable of both love and hate, both self-sacrifice and utter butchery. That cruel Nazi flare we've come to expect from cinema's WWII Germans is, here, wielded not by Germans but by Danes—Carl nearly beating to death the retreating soldier, Lt. Jensen sending the German boys to another minefield rather than home as promised, the Danish mother sneering a wish for the German boys' death.
Yet, despite its cruelty, Land of Mine is a tale of love. At first, Carl's love for his country and its land is placed in direct opposition to any possible love for the German boys under his command. The Germans destroyed Denmark's land with buried mines. Love for this land leads the Danes to hazard the lives of the German youth to restore it. The problem for Carl and his Danish comrades is not an utter lack of love but a limit to its breadth. Carl intuitively loves his land, his dog, his people. But it is only through an unlikely grace—the burden of the mines, jointly carried— that he learns to love his enemy.
In the end, Carl's love for the land merges with his love for the German boys. And Land of Mine ushers us away with one last thrilling landscape. It is not Danish. Nor is it German. It's both.