A German/Danish Film – “The Land of Mine” – Proves Great Movies Are Still Being Made

Deal W. Hudson
March 6, 2017

I grow weary of hearing people say, “They don’t make good movies anymore.” Good, even great, films are released each year, but are shown in only a few movie theaters in the US. Those who complain must be paying attention only to what’s showing at the local cinema. There’s a much larger world of movies that, if you are interested, you must seek out to find.

I read film magazines such as Sight & SoundCineaste, and Film Comment, and check in regularly with websites such as dvdbeaver.com and dvdtalk.com. The highly-praised films I read about rarely achieve wide release in the US, and can be seen only when released on DVD or Blu-ray or on a streaming channel, such as filmstruck.comhulu.comnetflix.com, or mubi.com. A rare exception was Academy Award-winning, Hungarian-made, “Son of Saul” released in 2015.

A German-Danish film, “The Land of Mine,” was nominated this year for Best Foreign Film but lost to “The Salesman,” an Iranian production. The film directed by Asghar Farhadi* must be extremely good, because it was chosen over “The Land of Mine,” which I would put forward as undeniable proof to any and all skeptics that great films are still being made.

The simple story is based upon what happened to German POWs in Denmark at the end of WWII: 2000 of these prisoners were put to work clearing Denmark’s beaches of over 2,000,000 landmines placed there by German soldiers then occupying the country. This enormous number of mines were buried in anticipation of a possible Allied invasion of Denmark. Over half of the POWS would die or suffer injury removing the mines.

But this film is about more than watching the Germans being forced to risk their lives on the beaches of Denmark. [Spoiler Alert!]  “The Land of Mine” is about the moral, perhaps spiritual, conversion of the hardened Danish war veteran put in charge a small group charged with clearing a section of beach containing over 40,000 mines.

Roland Møller plays Sgt. Carl Leopold Rasmussen who at the film’s beginning appears to be driven by a vengeful hatred towards those put in his charge. With his dog, Otto, at his side, Sergeant Rasmussen humiliates and verbally brutalizes the POWs, making it clear that he cares nothing about their lives, just as the German soldiers who invade Denmark cared nothing for those they killed and maimed.  The Germans themselves are all young, either in their late teens or early 20s. As the camera scans their faces and expressions they bear no resemblances to the hardened, murderous Nazi warriors so often depicted in movies about WWII.

One of the group, Sebastian, played skillfully by Louis Hoffman, emerges as the natural leader. The relationship between Sebastian and Sergeant Rasmussen forms the heart of the film: Sebastian intuits the presence of compassion behind the hostile, volatile exterior of Sergeant. The eyes of the Sergeant himself are drawn to the knowing eyes of Sebastian, which evince both intelligence and courage. When Sebastian insists the Sergeant consider using a device he has made to make locating the mines more efficient, he succeeds in getting the Sergeant to lower his guard ever so slightly.

But the deeper changes to Sergeant Rasmussen occur as he watches his soldiers starving for lack of food and dying one by one on the beach. Against the orders of his superiors, he steals food from headquarters for the POWs, earning the enmity of a captain watching scornfully from his tent.

When one of two twin brothers is flown up by mine, the Sergeant clears the cabin of the other prisoners and, like a father to a son, seeks to calm the hysteria of the surviving twin. What Sebastian saw from the beginning is now revealed to all as he gives his prisoners a day off, taking them down to the beach for a soccer game and foot races. However, as they walk back into the dunes towards the cabin, the Sergeant throws a ball to his dog into an area of beach supposedly cleared of mines. Otto is killed by an exploding mine.

Now devastated, the Sergeant reverses his moral course and resumes treating his men as enemies who deserve death. He orders one of the POWs to fetch a ball with his mouth and kneel at his feet. As he glances at Sebastian, the Sergeant knows that Sebastian knows this anger will not last, that the good man of a few hours ago will once again return. The face of the Sergeant suggests that he knows that Sebastian is right.

One of the telling scenes begins when the Sergeant notices Sebastian pull the cross from around his neck and holds it in his hand asks, “Does that help you?” In response, Sebastian takes it off and offers it to the Sergeant who is intrigued but politely refuses. When Sebastian puts it back around his neck he explains it was given to him by his father. The Sergeant asks whether his father is still alive, and Sebastian’s choking answer, “I don’t know” creates a moment of friendship that sweeps aside the war and all the recalcitrant hatred it left in its wake.

From the beginning, the Sergeant had promised the POWs that after they cleared the beach they would be sent home. However, the commanding officer he had enraged by stealing food takes the remaining prisoners, after they had cleared their beach, and assigns them to another mine clearing operation. Sergeant Rasmussen goes to the officer to ask for their release which is coldly refused.  As he leaves the officer’s tent, his moral conversion becomes complete — he now fully identifies with the suffering and humanity of his prisoners.

We don’t learn the fate of Sergeant Rasmussen after he subsequently directly disobeys the orders of this commanding officer. The final shot of the film is the face of the Sergeant glowing with joy, in stark contrast to the beginning of the film when it was hardened with the hatred of his prisoners. The Sergeant has given them the freedom he promised. We can only assume the Sergeant has accepted the fact that their freedom will come at a great personal cost, a sacrifice he is willing to make.

I had not heard of the writer/director Martin Zandvliet (b. 1971) whose two previous feature films, “Applause” and “A Funny Man” were well-received in Europe and on the film festival circuit. I could find no flaw in his film, the camera work of Camilla Hjelm took full advantage of the beach, dunes, sea, sun, and sky, but most of all the superb casting and acting of the central characters. The film score of Sune Martin was appropriately minimalist, never overwhelming the visual narrative presented so masterfully by Zandvliet.

I will be very interested in seeing Zandvliet’s upcoming film, “The Outsider,” another post-WWII drama about an American soldier who joins the Japanese mafia, called the Yakuza. I will also be following the careers of Roland Møller and Louis Hoffman, whose performances were both Oscar-worthy.

*There’s little doubt that President Trump’s travel ban impacted the outcome of the Academy’s vote. Asghar Farhadi was unable to travel to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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