Friday, 21 April 2017

LAND OF MINE : Tuesday 18th April 2017.

'LAND OF MINE' is a Danish/German Co-produced foreign language historical drama film that I saw earlier this week. It had its Premier at TIFF in September 2015, and was released in its native Denmark in early December 2015 and only in the last three weeks has this highly acclaimed inspired by real WWII events offering arrived into Australian cinema's off the back of 26 award wins and nineteen further nominations including a Best Foreign Language Film nod at this years recent Academy Awards. Directed and Written by Martin Zandvliet, this film cost US$5.2M to make and has so far grossed US$2.2M.

Telling the true WWII story of the days immediately after the surrender of Germany in May 1945 when a group of about 2,000 German Prisoners of War were handed over to Danish authorities and sent out to the west coast. Here they were forced to clear up to two million land mines buried in the sand along the coastal beaches there, laid by the Germans when they occupied the country, believing that the Allied Invasion would take place there.

We are first introduced to Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) waiting in his Jeep at an intersection when a column of captured German soldiers of all ranks passes by. The Sergeant waits and waits at the intersection and then drives down the road in the opposite direction to which the Germans are walking. He pulls his Jeep up abruptly and reverses ten meters or so, jumps out, and picks out a German soldier carrying a wartime souvenir of a Danish flag and promptly starts to relentlessly beat him up violently and without any remorse. Such is the Danes hatred of the Germans for occupying their country for the past five years, and what right did that German soldier have to steal the Danish flag! This sets the tone for the film that will unfold, and gives us the measure of the man. We then see the Sergeant pacing out demarcation lines on the beach according to a map of where 45,000 land mines are buried in the sand on the area of beach that he is to supervise the clearing of.

Next up we see thrown together teams of young German soldiers, mostly teenagers conscripted by Hitler in the closing days of the war. They are in a training camp learning how to diffuse land mines - the type of which are buried in the coastal sands they will shortly be sent to clear. They at this point are under the command and the training of Captain Ebbe (Mikkel Folsgaard), who has even more contempt for the Germans and cares not if they live or die.

Once their training is complete, the German lads, some of them no more than boys, are tested on live land mines in a bunker against the clock. Speed is of the essence for the authorities, while staying alive and in one piece is the priority for the young lads. The scene where one by one the boys enter the bunker carrying a live land mine which they have to diffuse is edge of your seat stuff, as one by one they come out some smiling, some shaking but all sweating from their ordeal. It is their first of many such ordeals from which many will perish or carry permanent life changing injuries.

With their training complete, the lads are sent off to the west coast where they meet for the first time with the hard nosed, uncaring, brutal Sergeant whose contempt for the Germans is set in stone, and as such he is determined to treat them with zero tolerance and zero sympathy.

He tells them that his strip of beach contains 45,000 buried land mines and if they each clear six mines every hour they will be able to return home to Germany in three months as free men. The reality is though that many of his team were teenagers and all were ill equipped to get down on their hands and knees and carry out such dangerous work day in day out for three months with little sustenance, cramped and makeshift sleeping conditions, and nowhere to clean up.

Every day the Sergeant marches his team down to the beach to dig for mines. This task seems like an endless one as the team inch along the beach side by side on their bellies prodding beneath the surface for hard metal objects that must be diffused. As each mine is located, so we see shaking hands very gingerly pulling out the detonator pin, which for the most part meets with success, but along the way there are failures as well resulting in casualties and severe life threatening injuries sustained. Sometimes it's freak accidents and sometimes it's booby trapped mines too that cause the explosions, and when they do come, it's almost with a sense of relief from the tension being played out on screen.

Each early evening the team are locked inside the confines of their hut where they sleep off the stress, the fear, the anxiety of the day. Tensions mount within the team as they suffer from acute hunger, from the mood swings of the Sergeant, and from the personality clashes within their own ranks. As the team grow increasingly hungry scavenging for food which makes them sick, and weary, so the Sergeants feelings towards his young charges starts to soften.

As time passes the Sergeant comes to appreciate that his team really had nothing to do with the wartime German occupation of Denmark, and he begins to show sympathy towards them - securing them rations of bread and potatoes, organising a beach soccer game, showering them with clean water and providing pain killing medical aid to those injured. He warms especially to Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hoffman) who stands out as the natural leader of the group, and with whom he has open conversation and shares a joke or two.

In the final analysis the beach is cleared of 45,000 mines. The team that remains are on clean up duty aided by others loading all the diffused land mines onto the back of a truck for removal. Sharing jokes and light hearted banter about their future lives once they return to Germany, one of the lads becomes just a little too slack with loading the munition onto the truck. The resultant explosion sends truck parts, bodies, sand and a thick plume of black smoke up into the air leaving a huge burned out crater in its wake. The majority of the team perish, leaving only four surviving out of the original team of fourteen.

As the four remaining, including Sebastian, board the truck to begin their journey home and to freedom so the authorities have over-ruled that decision on the strength that they need more experienced Germans to clear more land mines elsewhere on the west coast, and as such they are forced to stay behind. The Sergeant pleads with Captain Ebbs but to no avail - the orders have been given and they must be followed, and after all, they're only Germans and 'if they're old enough to go to war, they're old enough to clean up after them!'. The Sergeant finds the decision to be unjust given the commitment originally made, the sacrifices he has seen in human life as a result of his mine clearing operation, and the determination seen in his young men. And so, the Sergeant engineers their release and secretly defying orders takes them to a drop off point 500 metres away from the German border, where they are released and run toward their freedom.

This is an intense, at times confronting, emotionally charged film that you can't help but feel invested in. The body of Actors give convincing  performances especially Moller as Sergeant Rasmussen and Hoffman as Schumann, and also adding weight are the roles of identical twin brothers Ernst and Werner Lessner played by Emil and Oskar Belton respectively and Helmut Morbach as played by Joel Basman. A little known story that turns the tables on the Nazi's as the downtrodden, persecuted and punished in the aftermath of the War making the captive the captor and ultimately a hero from the antagonist. This is believable, engaging throughout, beautifully shot in muted tones and a relevant story of tragedy, tension, compassion and the human spirit that needed to be told. Of the 2,000 or so German POW who were ordered to clear the beaches of their own laid landmines, more than half either died in the process or suffered serious injury during the five months in took to clear the beaches completely - more than were killed during the entire five year Nazi occupation of Denmark.

-Steve, at Odeon Online-

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