Gripping Foreign Language Oscar Nom Land of Mine Comes to Cedar Lee

Though it's difficult to recommend going to the regular old movies while CIFF is in town, allow us to nevertheless enthusiastically endorse Land of Mine, a stunning WWII drama from Denmark that was nominated for this year's Best Foreign Language Oscar, and which opens today at the Cedar Lee.

The gripping, richly acted film demonstrates the enduring power of WWII narratives and forces us to consider the emotional (and physical) violence perpetrated even after combat ceased.

Roland Møller, a Danish thug-turned-actor of the Tom Hardy school, plays Sgt. Carl Rassmussen of the Danish army. At the outset, German soldiers are being expelled from Denmark after the Allied victory. Rasmussen is an angry man who carries the white-hot scorn of his nation in his tense fists, his clenched jaw. The opening sounds of the film are Rasmussen's strained nasal breaths as he watches a column of soldiers depart along a muddy road. He confronts one carrying a flag, striking him repeatedly, ruthlessly in the face.

The film is about land mines — note the title's covalence. Rasmussen is put in charge of an outfit of German POWs, most of whom are no more than boys, who are tasked with clearing a Danish beach of 45,000 mines. These are mines that German soldiers planted there in anticipation of a battle that never happened, and the POWs must clean up the mess. They are told that once the beach is completely clear, they can return home to their families. And so they scour the sand day in and day out, crawling gingerly over the beach while probing with special sticks, and then, once they locate a mine, removing its explosive core with painstaking precision.

This is dangerous work, which isn't lost on the Danish army (illustrated throughout by Lt. Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), who would be happiest, it seems, if all the German soldiers are killed on the job). And it makes for especially white-knuckle viewing. Knowing that one wrong move, one false step, could result in a lost limb or worse keeps you on the edge of your seat. Two gruesome detonations are tough to watch. One, staged in silence, is a tragic button on one of the film's most memorable scenes.

But Land of Mine is nothing like an action film. It is Rasmussen's story. His gradual appreciation of the boys' plight — in addition to their deadly task, they are kept in a filthy barracks without food  — is the film's beautiful arc. It is perhaps natural that he assumes a father-figure role, but the extent to which his fondness for the boys becomes outright insubordination is the ultimate question.

When it becomes clear that the Danish army intends to work the boys until they've all fallen victim, one by one, to the mines, betraying a promise made to them, Rasmussen must make a decision. The final scene and image is a striking callback to the opening and a near-perfect finale to this masterfully realized character study.