Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, February 19, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Land of Mine (2016)

One of my favorite things about Oscar season is that it gives me an opportunity to see movies that I otherwise probably wouldn't watch. Though I pride myself upon my diverse taste in film, I'll admit, serious dramas from the reaches of Europe are not usually part of my cinematic diet.
One such picture is “Land of Mine,” the Dutch submission for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards. (That English title is actually a rather tacky pun. The original Dutch title – which translates as “Under the Sand” - is far more fitting) The film doesn't exactly reject the stereotypes of hyper-depressing, overly grim European art cinema but I'm still glad I watched it.

Following the end of World War II, the east coast of Denmark was littered with roughly two million landmines. In order to clean out the mines, and as punishment for their country's action, German P.O.W.s were forcefully recruited for this job. Many of them were teenage boys, drafted into the war, unaware or uncaring about the Nazi Party's objectives. “Land of Mine” follows one such unit. A group of fourteen boys comb the beaches with only metal rods and wooden frames. Their leader, Sgt. Rasmussen, is encouraged to treat the boys poorly. Yet, as the many of the kids loose life and limb on the job, he can't help but develop sympathy for them.

The first scene in “Land of Mine” involves Rasmussen attacking a P.O.W., grabbing the Dutch flag from his hands, and beating him up. The Danes feel little sympathy for the Germans who attacked them during the war. Perhaps understandably. The film, however, points out how cruel Rasmussen is the boys under his watch. He mocks them, yells at them, tells them to work when they are sick. After the sergeant's dog is killed by a mine, he humiliates one of the boys by making him bark and retrieve a ball. The mind sweepers being so young only draws attention to how they are paying for a crime they didn't commit. Through this curtain, “Land of Mine” becomes a film about the injustice of war and how cruelty is never justified, no matter the circumstances.

Though Rasmussen is often cruel to the boys, he does eventually start to feel sorry for them. Watching them practically starve to death and get blown apart by the mines stirs feelings in him. Considering his earlier cruelty, the scenes where he warms up to the kids – comforting the others after one dies, playing a game of soccer with them on the freshly cleared beach – feel earned. “Land of Mine” isn't a sentimental film, so Rasmussen's kindness is rare and often peppered with more cruelty. Yet, ultimately, it's clear he cares about the boys in some way. Maybe not as much as the boys care for themselves. Like so many war films, “Land of Mine” is also a story about camaraderie among soldiers. The teens cling to each other because they have too.

Inevitably, quite a few landmines go off. Director Martin Zandvliet orchestrates each act of violence so that it strikes the audience as sudden and powerful. The first explosion happens because the teen boy is ill, having a vomiting fit in the middle of deactivating the bomb. His arms are blown off by the blast. Compare this to the over-the-top movie violence in “Hacksaw Ridge.” The bloody, charred stubs that used to be this boy's arms are presented matter-of-factually, a grim but grounded depiction of the horrors of war. Yet more shocking explosions reverberate throughout “Land of Mine.” Because the film emphasizes the youth of these boys, and the quiet of the cost, each horrible loss of life deeply effects the audience.

“Land of Mine” is also beautifully photographed, the sudden explosions and militaristic cruelty often contrasted against the clean, white beaches and the flowing water beyond. The film could've easily been mawkish, considering its historic setting and young cast. The decision to hold back the emotions ultimately make a more effecting film, making the audience understand the seriousness of the situation without creeping into melodrama. I have no idea if this will win the Oscar, though that would be a pleasant surprise. Other candidates seem more likely. Whatever the outcome, “Land of Mine” is a very good film and I'm glad I got the chance to see it. [8/10]

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