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‘Land of Mine’ is powerful in its anxiety

The dehumanizing effects of war are presented with gripping power in the Danish World War II drama “Land of Mine.” The grim story has a terrible, punning title, but that’s its only significant defect. Writer/director Martin Zandvliet’s Oscar-nominated drama treats the end of combat as the beginning of pitiless revenge that very slowly leads to a belated recovery of mercy.

Its focus is a small group of captured German soldiers, mostly boys, kept as prisoners near the country’s seacoast after the cease-fire, and the Danish soldier controlling them. The POWs are assigned to a suicide mission, forced to dig up 45,000 unexploded charges that their army planted under the beach, where they believed Allied forces would land rather than Normandy. The squad’s dangerous work is a reprisal as much as an assignment.

We meet Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller), almost growling with hate as he drives past hundreds of disarmed Germans being marched out of his country. The former conquerors look victimized now, and Rasmussen hits his brakes to drive the point home.

Choosing troopers at random, the powerful Dane screams at them savagely. His people had gone through agonizing occupation, weakening food shortages and humiliating government cooperation with their German captors. None of that changes when he pulls one out of line and beats him to a pulp, but to Rasmussen, in his flared-nostril rage, it feels warranted.

Was it justified, or was it a hate crime of its own? When Rasmussen is assigned to stand guard over a group of fresh-faced German prisoners during their long mine removal, he’s not much concerned about the dangers of their job. He considers them contemptible, even if most are barely out of childhood. Were they Hitler’s clueless pawns? Fine, now they’re his. Supervising them feels less like a duty than a spiteful opportunity to deliver physical and mental abuse.

Moller is nothing short of electrifying, creating a military tyrant equal to R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket.” Rasmussen doesn’t express himself in that kind of profane poetry. But his inflexible stance and severe attitude speak volumes. If one of his charges tells him that the others are dizzy from undernourishment or have invented a more efficient method of locating and disarming the deadly mines, Moller stares at the lightweight like a pitiless animal about to attack.

There’s equal tension in the scenes of very young men scraping through sandy soil to uncover the sensitive triggers beneath. They have little conversation, but it’s not dramatically needed. The young actors’ anxious faces are expressive on their own. Hushed wind, the harrowing sound of bare fingers scraping sand against metal, and the you-are-there immediacy of handheld camerawork play out the scenes at the needed pace. When the work triggers crippling or lethal blasts, they reverberate deeper than words. An impressive ensemble of up-and-coming performers contributes psychologically credible acting in playing the Germans.

As the assignment presses on, Rasmussen begins to feel some empathy for his agonized crew, especially Louis Hofmann’s mature Sebastian. Intelligent and matter-of-fact, Sebastian understands the sergeant as a man who can be approached with respect. As if dealing with a well trained dog, Rasmussen provides more slack in his control and small but rising levels of trust. Almost imperceptibly his sense of duty and justice begins to turn. Can it reach justice and forgiveness?

“Land of Mine” maintains a resonant level of anxiety throughout. It’s exhausting by design.

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