Oskar Bökelmann (left) as Ludwig and Emil Belton as Ernst Lessner in “Land of Mine.” Photo by Henrik Petit, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Unlikely villains: Denmark’s ‘Land of Mine’ is a tale of role reversals and national hatred


In any standard World War II movie, it is safe to assume that the Germans will be the beastly villains who vent their sadistic fury on the hapless — or heroic —  citizens of Nazi-occupied countries.

And if a poll on the nicest nation in Europe were taken at the end of World War II, it is likely that Denmark would rank at the top and Germany at or near the bottom.

“Land of Mine,” Denmark’s nominee in the Oscar race for foreign-language film, shatters the mold.

During the nearly five years after Hitler’s invasion of Denmark, German sappers seeded the Scandinavian country’s west coast with some 2 million land mines in anticipation of an eventual Allied invasion, which never happened.

With the Nazis defeated in 1945, the reconstituted Danish army decided to clear the beaches, forcing German prisoners of war to do the dangerous job. The POWs comprised a wide range of ages, but in the film, it falls to a group of 14 teenagers to do the job. The young soldiers, between 15 and 18, were drafted in Hitler’s last, desperate stand of
the war.

Their overseer is Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller), who sees his assignment as a chance to get even with the detested Germans for their wartime rule, which was relatively mild until 1943, when the Danes rescued some 7,200 of the country’s 8,000 Jews by ferrying them to neutral Sweden and safety.

Rasmussen locks up his charges at night, lets them go hungry for days at a time, and cares not a whit that the untrained German youngsters are regularly blown up while trying to defuse the mines, buried only a few inches deep. (The film’s Danish title translates as “Under the Sand,” which gets lost in the English title’s rather heavy-handed play on words.)

In one nail-biting scene, the young POWs are made to walk, arms linked, across a still mine-infested beach.

When the sergeant’s attitude toward his charges gradually softens — he even steals some bread from the commissary for them — he is upbraided by his commanding officer.

Martin Zandvliet, the highly regarded Danish director and screenwriter, acknowledges that he received some hate mail after the film was released in his country. However, at 46, he and most of his fellow citizens were born well after the war and can view it at some emotional distance.

During a phone interview, Zandvliet described two aspects of his film as drawing some general observations on human nature and in re-examining the attitudes of his countrymen during the Nazi occupation.

One facet of the film is the enduring nature of national hatred, even in a country like Denmark, which “pictures itself as a happy country,” he said.

How do we deal with such hatred, pervasive throughout the world? How do we find a way to talk to one another?

Zandvliet shows no reluctance in questioning some of the laudatory beliefs about his country’s role during World War II.

In almost any recollection of the Holocaust, one of the few bright spots is the rescue of 7,200 of Denmark’s Jews, who escaped the Nazi clutches when they were ferried out of the country by Danish underground fighters and fishermen. The director lauds the risks taken by many Danes in this clandestine operation, but notes that quite a few Jews had to hand over considerable amounts of money to be rescued.

Overall, he observed, the Danes, as fellow “Aryans,” were treated better by the Nazis than the people of any other occupied country. But on the whole, Zandvliet said, his countrymen didn’t really “turn against the Germans until they started losing the war.”

To illustrate the endurance of national hatreds, Zandvliet looked further back into history. The Danes, he said, had never forgiven the Germans for the outcome of an 1864 war, when the Prussians incorporated some Danish territory as the spoils of victory.

One other conclusion from his film, he observed, is that “when adults go to war, it’s often the kids who pay the price. … Of course, you can’t compare this to the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust,” but in the case of the young German soldiers depicted in the film, “we have to remember that they were only 9 to 11 years old when World War II started.”

In general, “Land of Mine” has been well received in Denmark, despite the few hate mails, Zandvliet said, adding, “On the whole, Danes seemed to understand what I was trying to say.”

“Land of Mine” is playing at Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A., Playhouse in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino. It opens March 10 at the Claremont 5 in Claremont.