My Sunday’s Sundance film in Salt Lake City was not well attended, due I surmise to the powder day being had by anyone on the ski slopes at the time of day. Those who were in attendance at Rose Wagner in downtown Salt Lake, though, were in for something special. Land of Mine is a Danish film that was released on the festival circuit late last year. It won internationally at Tokyo and was nominated at the Hamburg and Toronto Film Festivals. I don’t often pay much attention to this sort of thing, but it was such a unique bit of film that I felt compelled to do a bit of light research on Sunday evening while I decompressed. I called three different people to debrief, and I wonder whether or not anyone else in the theater felt the same drive to process the emotions drawn out by the movie.
The premise of the film is unique and imposing. At the end of the Second World War, the Danish kept some 2,000 prisoners-of-war on hand to undo some of the damage left behind by the armies of the Reich. They were tasked (read: forced) to remove land mines from the beaches of the western coastline. Now this, even alone, is unusual and worth a comment. The international community is uniform in its condemnation of the use of prisoners-of-war to perform deadly or dangerous duties. It was a war crime. At the same time, the Danes had just emerged from an horrific occupation by Nazi forces, and they weren’t feeling particularly sympathetic toward their former occupiers. The international community at the time was not particularly sympathetic toward the very group that had perpetrated the worst and most intricately planned state-sponsored mass slaughter in world history, and our hesitation to be sympathetic toward Nazis today is as justified now as it was at the time of the close of the conflict.
So, here’s the rub: Land of Mine is a Danish- and German-language film whose protagonists are almost exclusively Nazis donning Nazi uniforms, while its antagonists are the higher-ups in the Danish command. And the characters were, in fact, sympathetic.
Another wrinkle in the backstory to the film: many of the POWs required to clear the beaches of the landmines – 2.2 million of them – were children. That is, quite a lot of those on find-and-defuse-landmines-by-hand duty were aged 13-17. Toward the end of the war, when Hitler was running out of proper, grown-up troops, the dictator resorted to forcing children into the service of “the Fatherland,” and the Hitler Youth reserves were called into duty. So a child who was, say, six years old when Hitler was elected Chancellor or eight when the death camps really began their calculated, human destruction project might be blown to pieces by a mine triggered by hand from close distance on a mine-clearing mission in Denmark in 1949. Something like half of those tasked to clear the beaches were killed in the attempt.
Sgt. Roland Møller, the anti-hero of the film – a man who genuinely detests the Nazis as much as any other Dane – is depicted as a human being coming to terms with the awful fact that, despite the atrocities committed by people wearing the same uniform as the person dying in hopeless agony under his command and in front of him, returning evil for evil is not always satisfying. He motivates the POW troops he’s handed to work diligently, encouraging them to hope to be returned home when they clear the beach that’s the main setting of the film. Møller is a stand-in for the audience, in a way. He hates them; he sees that they’re human – like he is; he hates them again; he pities them; he recognizes the wrong done to them; he is pained when they are pained. As are we members of the audience.
We are caused to feel that with which we are not familiar: we cry and worry for characters who are undeniably Nazis. We might hate these particular Nazis through the whole movie – though perhaps not – but we can empathize with them. That was the thing that struck me the most.
For anyone who’s visited my page before, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that it’s a firm belief of mine that, in order to prevent human-on-human atrocities from reoccurring in the future, we must come to the fact that most of the people causing the worst of all harms in Nazi Germany were exactly like us. They were not monsters – though some of the architects of the chaos undoubtedly were – and yet they were fully capable of doing terrible harms to their fellow humans. As are we.
This is not really a movie review but a bit of consideration on the emotions engendered by Land of Mine.
The movie was good. It was great, in fact. The acting was very impressive, as was the cinematography, the script, the sound, and the set/setting. It’s worth seeing. In fact, everyone should see it. But I won’t be surprised to find there’s a generational or cultural divide here. Those who cannot psychologically maintain anger toward or hatred of the evil the Nazis represented and represent today simultaneously alongside genuine empathy for Nazi-committed human beings being treated inhumanely will not find this film to be compelling.
Here’s the film’s IMDB page. Support it. Watch it. Just think about what it makes you feel.