During the German occupation of Denmark in World War II, the German army planted more than two million land mines along Denmark’s western coast. In the aftermath of the war, German PoWs are sent to the west coast to painstakingly undo the work their military did before, the duty of digging up and defusing land minds being judged too dangerous for the Danish military. This film follows a group of German teenagers who are sent to remove landmines from a stretch of the coast under the watchful eye of Danish sergeant Rasmussen. You couldn’t ask for a better premise, really, and the film does a great job at ratcheting up the tension; I was on the edge of my seat by the time the first practice session was over and they hadn’t left the training camp yet. The film handles violence well, laying all the groundwork in long periods of quiet and tension and every time a mine actually goes off, it really got to me. When the violence comes, it happens fast, just one explosion and it’s over, but the camera lingers on the horrific destruction left behind. The mines explode in an instant, but the film lets the audience really sit with the horrific injuries and mutilations caused by the mines. The very first mine that goes off leads into an absolutely harrowing and incredibly graphic sequence. The filmmaker understandably uses the boys as figures of pathos and it works, especially when we get to actually know a couple of them, but the heart of the film is really Rasmussen as the sergeant. He’s filled with rage toward the German boys under his command, laying on them all his anger & sorrow over what the German army as a whole did to his country (the title refers to both the patch of ground assigned to the boys to be cleared and also to the stark nationalism on display). Roland Moller is a force of nature and takes his rightful place in the cinema hall of fame of vicious sergeants. (If you’ve seen the superb Danish film A Hijacking from a couple of years ago, you might remember Moller in a supporting role; if you haven’t seen A Hijacking, you really must – it’s even better than this one). He finds the humanity which makes it all the more terrifying when he slips back into his rage mode. Late in the film, he’s become more sympathetic to the boys and has formed a respect that could almost be seen as a grim kind of friendship with one of them, but all it takes is a single accident and he goes into an absolutely terrifying meltdown that is incredibly grueling to watch. Without spoiling the movie, the ending is sure to be controversial. All I will say is that Zandvliet has a choice to make at a certain point and the movie essentially has two ways to end. He picked one way and there’s a large group of people, I think, that will question that decision. For my part, I’ll say that it’s less the decision and more the execution that I had a little trouble with; it’s as valid a choice as the other would have been to end the film the way Vandzliet does, but it isn’t done as deftly as it could be. Regardless, the only flaws here are really the fact that there are too many young boy characters and they all kind of bleed together except for a couple of them and that slight bumble at the end. But still, the film remains both a grim portrait of a dark moment in history that has been basically forgotten and a gripping, nail-biting thriller. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – story of land-mine removal team after WWII is both a gripping thriller and a sobering look at a forgotten side of war; a masterful lead performance & taut direction add to the mix. 3 ½ stars.