Even more so than most Oscar contenders, nominees for Best Foreign Language Film tend to be harrowing dramas highlighting issues, usually to the progressive end of the political spectrum. But the best ones manage to add a sense of nuance or complication to the material. It's easy to hate the perpetrators of the Holocaust, but last year's Son of Saul confronted us with a man at once victim and assistant.
And so it is with this year's Danish entry, Martin Zandvliet's Under Sandet -- "Under the Sand", but subtitled in English as the darkly-punny Land of Mine. The young protagonists we are drawn to identify with are put in grave danger and horribly mistreated. They, like all people, deserve compassion. But they are Nazis, whatever else they are, and they're cleaning up a Nazi mess.
Land mines are indeed a horrific danger outside of war, with minefields remaining active decades after the conflict ceases, often in areas that might otherwise invite residential use. Denmark itself only cleared the last of its mined beaches in 2012; they'd been considered to have an acceptably low risk of detonation, but not the zero-risk called for in 1997's Ottawa Treaty. But Denmark didn't make this mess. Back in World War II, occupying Nazi forces were convinced that any Allied invasion would come from England to the west Danish coast, and they sowed the beaches with literally millions of mines to inflict early casualties on invading forces.
After the war, the occupying British forces handed more than two thousand German prisoners of war over to the Danish authorities to use in the mine-clearing effort, in a clear violation of the Geneva Convention's stipulation that work assignments for POWs be safe. Not that anyone was really paying much attention to this in the wake of the discoveries at German concentration camps. Zandvliet turns up the pathos by putting a dozen teenagers under the command of Danish Sgt. Rasmussen (Roland Møller). And indeed, by the end of the war Germany was conscripting battalions of the Hitler Youth into actual military service in a desperate attempt to fill out its ranks. Many of the soldiers captured on V-E Day were little more than children.
And yet, they were still Nazis. The most sympathetic fair-haired boy among them, Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), could be mistaken for Dylann Roof in a light fog rolling in off the North Sea. Helmut (Joel Basman), with his initially-defiant pride, embraces his identity as a soldier more readily, but they all fall somewhere on a spectrum, and all need some amount of re-education. Zandvleit puts heavier emphasis on their youth than on their history, which is probably necessary to get most audiences to sympathize with them, but it does leave it to us to remember that as scared and intimidated they may have been, "just following orders" doesn't excuse participation in what Nazi Germany carried out during the war, and we don't know exactly what these particular soldiers did or didn't do before their capture, or what they would have done if left to their own devices.
Still, it's true that captured enemy combatants should not be given unsafe assignments, but who else but German soldiers should clean up the mess that German soldiers made? Should the Danish people, with the yoke of occupation finally lifted, crawl through the sand twelve abreast, cautiously probing ahead with an iron bar? Should they dig out and defuse each mine they come to, hoping that their neighbors each have steady hands as they dig and defuse their own mines? Sure, the individual soldiers who buried the mines in the first place are probably long dead, and there aren't nearly enough in the chain of command who ordered their placement to do the job. But someone has to do it and it certainly seems closer to justice for the German army to assume that risk as penance.
Zandvleit's script again falls a little short in leaving us to ponder this question, and even to remember that it's a question to be pondered. There's a vigorous debate to be had after the credits roll, but it's almost entirely absent from the film itself.
Instead, it focuses on the harrowing experience of the prisoners themselves. Underfed, underslept, and hated by everyone around them -- especially their commander-slash-guard -- it seems a matter of time until something terrible happens, again and again. Right from the beginning, as they get trained in their task, the tension underlies even the calmest moments. You know someone is going to screw up in the practice runs, and you even think you know when it's going to come, but just when you think your suspicious were wrong, they turns out horribly right. Zandvliet sets the expectation early: you can never, ever breathe a sigh of relief.
Some of the events are telegraphed. The prisoners are housed in a barn near the beach, and the young war widow (Laura Bro) who now owns the farm has a little daughter (Zoe Zandvliet). The sergeant has a dog, Otto (Suri). Both of them, you can be certain, will be put into danger at some point, but you will never know exactly when it's coming. Two of the Germans are twins Ernst and Werner Lessner (Emil and Oskar Belton), so you know one of them will be injured and the other will be horrified at the loss. Again, you know it's coming, but you can never tell when.
In its way, that's the real horror of a minefield in the first place. You have no idea where or when the blast will come, but it's just when you let your guard down that you accidentally trigger it. Like a trauma victim never knowing what the next trigger will be, mines force you to a constant state of high alert, and burn you out even if they never go off. At least, for us watching the movie, the credits will eventually roll.
Rating: 4 out of 5