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'Land of Mine' is a violent and heartbreaking portrait of forgiveness
"Land of Mine" screened at Sundance Film Festival. - photo by Josh Terry
"LAND OF MINE" 3 stars Roland Mller, Mikkel Boe Flsgaard, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Emil Belton, Oskar Belton; not rated; probable R; Sundance

Land of Mine only has a fraction of the violence and gore that has defined war films like Saving Private Ryan or even Schindlers List. But in a way, its sparse violence is harder to take, and Land of Mine is a gripping portrait of humanity and forgiveness that is painfully difficult to watch.

The film is set in Denmark in the aftermath of World War II, as captured German soldiers were forced to locate, diffuse and remove an estimated 1.5 million land mines placed on Danish shores during Nazi occupation. Our view is confined to a small group of soldiers under the watch of Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Mller), who arrives on screen beating a German soldier senseless for carrying around a Danish flag.

Rasmussens anger is understandable, but his prisoners are practically children. The Germans assigned to the sergeant were among the last desperate waves of the German military, innocent in every sense besides affiliation. But Rasmussen is not interested in technicalities, and after a tense training session under Lt. Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Flsgaard), Rasmussens group is sent to the beach in search of the mines.

The process of location and disarmament is comparatively simple. The prisoners lay down on their stomachs, prodding the sand in front of them with short sticks. When they find a mine, they simply dig it out, unscrew the top and remove the trigger mechanism. Their progress is charted carefully, and assuming they dont blow themselves up, they are assured release once the job is done.

But the process ignores the peril of the situation, and the tension of watching it onscreen is almost unbearable. The audience comes in with the understanding that these things are going to go off, and when they do, director Martin Zandvliet maximizes the terror of the experience.

At times "Land of Mine" feels like a horror film, holding your attention and dread as you wait for the next victim. But the scenes on the beach are actually secondary to the film's primary narrative, which is the character arc of Sgt. Rasmussen. He sees his starving young prisoners, marching off to the beach day after day to face what feels like an inevitable demise, and he becomes torn by his righteous indignation and unwitting compassion.

We don't get a lot of time to get to know the individual prisoners, but Zandvliet brings a handful of them to the forefront. Joel Basman plays Helmut Morbach, who is technically the other prisoners' commanding officer, even though he looks to be about 16. Oskar and Emil Belton play Werner and Ernst Lessner, twin brothers who look forward to rebuilding Germany as bricklayers when they return home, and Louis Hofmann plays Sebastian Schumann, a young man who does the most to bridge the gap with Rasmussen.

Ultimately "Land of Mine" uses its inherent horror to articulate a powerful message of forgiveness as Rasmussen is forced to choose between the boys under his care and a military that is happy, and perhaps even justified, in treating them like fodder.

As good as it is, quality filmmaking doesn't make "Land of Mine" any easier to watch. Stepping back from the experience, the film is actually conservative in its violence, and only one scene depicts the gory aftermath of an exploded mine. But the violence is still emotionally brutal, and a scene where some other soldiers pull Rasmussens prisoners from their barracks in the middle of the night to humiliate and abuse them is very upsetting, even if it's largely shot in quick cuts and shadows.

The ability to find forgiveness in the midst of terror is a profound message, but potential viewers of Land of Mine should be warned about the road to get there.

Land of Mine is not rated, but probable R for wartime violence, some profanity and thematic elements; running time 101 minutes.
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