History is always written by the victors. It’s a sad fact but war crimes are only ever the preserve of the losing side.

In the Summer of 1945, at the close of the Second World War, the Western coastline of the freshly liberated Denmark was one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

Convinced that the Allies would use Denmark as the bridgehead for their invasion of Europe, the occupying German army peppered the beaches with more than two million land mines.

After their defeat, as the Wehrmacht were repatriated to Germany, it is estimated that 2000 German prisoners of war, many of them raw, inexperienced teenage conscripts, were forced by their Allied captors to clear the beaches of mines, scrabbling on their hands and knees in the sand, defusing the munitions with their bare hands. Over half were killed outright or badly maimed. But only the losing side commit war crimes, right?

A ticking time bomb of justifiable rage and frustration Danish Army Sgt. Rassmussen (A Hijacking’s Roland Moller) vents his fury towards the disgraced occupying German army, taking any opportunity to beat and humiliate the retreating POWs who cross his path.

Tasked with clearing a stretch of beach of mines, Rassmussen is billeted on a nearby farm with a bitter young widow (Laura Bro) and her daughter (Zoe Zanvliet) and placed in command of a squad of a dozen starving, malnourished teenage POWs among them the sensitive Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), brooding cynic Helmut (Joel Basman) and childlike twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Belton).

If the boys clear the beach of the tens of thousands of mines lurking beneath the sand, they go home. All they have to do is defuse six mines each an hour and they’ll be done in three months. But the slightest wrong move could be their last…

By focusing on a shameful and largely forgotten episode that clearly breached the Geneva Convention, Zandvliet’s Land Of Mine is a film that drives home the point that war doesn’t end when the shooting stops and it’s the young whose blood is sacrificed on it’s altar, lambs to the slaughter. And make no mistake it is a slaughter, one youngster not even surviving basic training, the horror written across the other boys’ faces.

As much a prisoner as the boys under his care, Moller’s Rassmussen is a haunted man, coarsened by years of war, lashing out and beating his young charges, telling them he doesn’t care if they live or die as he forces them to work long, hazardous shifts. But he is still fundamentally a good man, or at least not a bad one. He develops a grudging respect, even affection for them, particularly Hofmann’s natural leader Sebastian, tries to shield them from his callous superior, steals rations to feed them, grieves with the survivors as their comrades are killed, victims of carelessness or pure dumb luck, while the boys themselves are no Aryan master race, these are not true believers, they are frightened young boys who’ve never known tenderness or the touch of a woman, whose ambitions soar no higher than simply surviving to maybe one day get a job in a brick factory.

The performances are uniformly strong with Moller and Hofmann particularly good and there’s a knife-edge tension, an immediacy to the film’s numerous bomb disposal scenes, filling the audience with dread and anticipation, the random and fatal explosions never failing to shock, just one shown in gory detail, the others more powerful for what they don’t show. Starkly shot by Zandvlet’s cinematographer and wife Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, the bodies she strews across the sand and the carnage she captures stand in sharp contrast to the serenity and natural beauty of the landscape.

Restrained and economical, Zandvliet’s Land Of Mine is stunning, an unbearably tense, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking exploration of the cost of war and it’s legacy, an epic tale of war, sacrifice and heroism painted on an intense, intimate canvas. Bold, challenging and harrowing, it’s simply one of the best films I’ve seen all year.

Movie Review: Land Of Mine
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