Don’t hold it against Martin Zandvliet’s land-mine drama that its English title is the dopiest movie-title pun since John Singleton’s Poetic Justice. That film concerned a poet named Justice; Land of Mine a land of mines. Called Under Sandet in the original Danish — roughly Under the Sand — Zandvliet’s tense, prickly third feature finds a squad of pubescent German soldiers enlisted after their führer’s death to help clean up his mess. In this case, that means a slow, terrifying sweep of the beaches of Denmark, where the Nazis had buried tens of thousands of land mines. Hence the more sensible title Under the Sand: The boys lie facedown and inch along, tapping gently with metal rods, every couple feet turning up a bomb that they then must disarm. The many scenes of these skin-and-bones kids crawling in silence prove unnervingly compelling — what other story has 45,000 Chekhov’s guns just waiting to go off?
The scenario is based in historical fact, but the incidents and characters are invented. That allows for variety in the suspense scenes — crew members die, but no two go out the same way — and some flexibility in genre. Zandvliet scores in his scenes of high suspense, leaving you to wince and suck in your breath, anticipating the boom. Or he does so until you figure out his tell. By the end, an attentive viewer might be able to call the moments when Zandvliet will blast away his boys, just as you can tell, in many American studio films, when another car is going to out-of-nowhere smash into the one the hero is driving.
What truly kept me guessing was whether or not Land of Mine would ever become the inspirational-coach movie it continually hints at. Roland Møller (A Highjacking) stars as a hardass Danish officer tasked with getting the boys to clear the beach. His Sgt. Rasmussen is introduced observing a squad of defeated German soldiers trodding south to the fatherland in May of ‘45; he finds an excuse to coldcock one and then keep pounding his face to a bloody mash. It’s disturbing even in this era of jubilant Nazi punching. Rasmussen's brutal, too, in his first scenes with the German teens, his every command a bark that the kids flinch at, some fighting back tears. In their first days of bomb cleanup, he’s content to let them starve and explode. Perhaps that English title is meant to come from his perspective: It’s his land, and who cares how many Germans die in its restoration?
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But wouldn’t you know it — the kids start growing on him. The youngest are as gangly and tender-eyed as newborn fawns, and Zandvliet never shows them discussing politics or their thoughts about, say, the Jews. Rasmussen softens toward his crew as its numbers shrink and as the kids exhibit heart. He nicks some food for them — in the film the Danes expect the Germans to perform well despite going days without sustenance — and gets dressed down by his superiors for his unseemly compassion. The rapprochement peaks with a day off, a game of soccer and the boys bounding across cleared sections of the beach with A Hard Day’s Night energy. Of course these enemies’ friendship won’t last, and the intensifying plot beats, just like the explosions, all come just when things finally seem calm.
Rasmussen promises his crew that they’ll be sent home to Germany once they’ve swept the 45,000 bombs off their beach. Møller movingly tempers Rasmussen’s stoniness as the film goes on, but it’s hard to credit that this hard-bitten sergeant is naïve enough to believe he can make good on that vow.
The film is sometimes too sentimental, too predictable in its drift, but electric in individual moments. The boys are mostly types — there’s a leader, a rebel, a pipsqueak, some twins — but the performers are effective. They create a group impression rather than strong individual ones, a frightened ravenousness than for the most part can’t quite extinguish their belief that they’ll get through this. They’re dew-touched naïfs, first conscripted into a war, then sent to their likely ends in this forced act of atonement.
From the start they’re so beaten down that Rasmussen’s upbraiding will likely strike viewers as cruel and unjustified — a testament to the power of film to stir empathy, sure, but also disappointingly pat. “They’re not Nazi Nazis,” the film seems to be saying about its Bad News Jerries. Zandvliet never dares to challenge us: If they were less lovable, if maybe some were of punchable age or expressed noxious views, would we sweat their fates so much, or cringe at the humiliations visited upon them by drunken Danish soldiers?