Just when I thought movies had exhausted every last possible World War II story, along comes Land of Mine, Denmark’s official submission to this year’s Academy Awards that was shortlisted as one of the nine best foreign films of 2016. Since the foreign language branch is notorious for skirting the most critically-acclaimed candidates in favor of more conventional fare – which is often a shame because a large percentage of the most daringly inventive work being produced today occurs overseas – many critics already believe without having even seen the movie that yet another WWII story must conform to this unfortunate trend. But Land of Mine actually does contain a surprising amount of contemporary, relevant, resonant profundity. It may look like the same old WWII flick, but that’s almost the point.
Land of Mine is the rare title that works as a double entendre. The most obvious interpretation speaks to the central narrative: during WWII, the Axis powers believed that the Allied powers would attempt to invade Germany through Denmark. As such, the Nazis littered the country with as many landmines as possible; thus, Denmark became a ‘land of mine(s).’ After the war, as a part of the reparations the Allied inflicted upon the Axis, German prisoners-of-war were sent to Denmark to disable by hand the mines that were never needed to defend against the invasion that never was. Needless to say, a majority of them died in the grueling process. Land of Mine chronicles the experience of one of these POW groups, and a good portion of the movie bears the sort of edge-of-your-seat intensity that made the Best Picture-winning The Hurt Locker such a success.
Yet whereas the subtext of The Hurt Locker was understanding the obvious, long-term psychological ramifications of lifestyles revolved around diffusing bombs (“soldiers believe war is their hurt locker, but in actuality war turns their minds into the most devastating hurt lockers of all!”), the subtext of Land of Mine connects to the second interpretation of the title. Though the German POWs play important roles, the main character is the Danish soldier in charge of them. Like many other people after WWII, he harbors deep resentment for all German citizens, regardless of their personal roles in the war. That sentiment manifests itself in his behavior by brutalizing his soldiers out of nationalist pride. In the name of the country that the uniform on his back represents, and for all of the innocents (and innocence) Germany killed, he would exact revenge on the ‘krauts’ under his command. Thus, the title Land of Mine also conveys the ‘mine vs. yours’/‘us vs. them’ mentality that most conflicts breed in a country’s collective consciousness.
This interpretation of the title, however, comes with a more critical undertone. In a deft reversal of audience expectations, writer/director Martin Zandvliet steeps the movie in the sort of Holocaust imagery long-associated with violent depictions of subjugated Jews. Yet here, the subjugated ones are in fact the German soldiers – almost always the ‘bad guys’ in WWII movies – being abused by the vindictive Danes – members of the Allied powers, almost always the ‘good guys’ – in a bloodlust mirroring that of conventional Nazi characters. Audiences have become so conditioned by countless Holocaust movies to empathize with the victims of these sorts of scenes that the German soldiers should immediately elicit pity from the audience. Even before the lead Danish character begins to question the ethics of his treatment of the Germans – which is basically the moral arc of the movie – the immoral familiarity of these cinematic forms of subjugation, both in content and how they’re filmed/edited/etc., attempts to endear the audience to the Germans. Oppressors have long been the villains of WWII movies, and thus in this case the oppressed Germans assume the roles of the conventional heroes.
In a not so subtle but still deft move, the entire group of Germans is exclusively comprised of extremely young and innocent-looking boys. This slight forsaking of reality reinforces the critical eye the movie takes to the aforementioned ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Though the youthfulness of these Germans does not diminish the hatred spewed at them by the Danes, the lack of subtlety in their angelic appearances can’t help but make the audience feel that these kids don’t deserve the revenge being inflicted upon them that would be more apropos being directed at their fellow countrymen. Since audiences are also accustomed to sympathizing with little boys, blaming them for getting caught up in their country’s more adult affairs almost feels inherently unfair. Yes, the boys are adorned in soldier’s garb, but it’s unclear what role – if any – they personally played in the horrific atrocities committed by a specific subset of Germany. Since obviously not every German was complicit and thus personally responsible for their country’s death toll, many did not deserve the piss-poor treatment depicted here. Even if a few of them did have a hand in the mass killings, people nowadays understand enough about propaganda to know that these children – and many of their adult counterparts – were most probably duped into believing they were doing the right thing, in the same way the Danes believed they were morally justified in trying to satiate their vengeful, nationalist bloodlust.
Yet herein lies the dangers of any ‘me vs. you’ mentality. In times of war, countries almost always promote ardent patriotism in support of the motherland against the ‘enemy,’ but this black-and-white perspective does not simply end when the war does. A lack of nuanced, empathetic understanding of the other side often prolongs the healing process, preventing everyone from moving on out of some sort of barbaric, tribalistic need to make the group at fault pay for their behavior. Instead of coming to terms with the fact that not everybody on the other end of a conflict is an objective enemy and thus needs to be penalized, most people blindly believe long after a conflict’s resolution in the nationalist sentiment expressed by the second interpretation of the title: “I live in a LAND OF MINE, of myself and similar people to me. My allegiance will always be to like-minded people over those who are associated with entities that have opposed us in the past.”
The modern resonance of this thought process cannot be understated. I don’t want to speak for the rest of the world, but I know many Americans feel as if they’re becoming more surrounded by people who oppose them, both within and outside the borders of the U.S.A. Whether it be global Islamic terrorists, Russian spies, or even Trump/Hillary supporters on the other side of the aisle, Americans – and perhaps most humans, regardless of their nationality – tend to adopt the unhealthy, black-and-white, ‘me vs. you,’ ‘us vs. them,’ ‘hero vs. villain’-centric perspective on their ideological opponents that Land of Mine repeatedly chastises. People need to just as – or perhaps even more – diligently find fault in themselves as they do in their opponents, an example set by the lead character here when he betrays his fellow soldiers to protect the German POWs out of a moral obligation that transcends loyalist nationality. In this context, the movie serves as yet another reminder that human behavior should more often adhere to one of art’s foundational idealistic tenets: the desire to villainize should always be trumped by the constant quest to understand, and thus empathize with the other side. Even if they’re believed to have acted inhumanly, every person deserves to be treated with respect, if for no other reason than inhumane disrespect often comes back around.
It’s often hard to prevent in the minds of most this cognitive separation of the victors from the defeated, a chasm that often results in the oppositional animosity Land of Mine depicts. As they say, history is written by the victors, and for much of human history they haven’t been kind to the defeated (even the very phrasing of ALLIED – a word with positive connotations – and AXIS – a word with the opposite – epitomizes this point). But that’s why movies like Land of Mine that intentionally interrelate and thus break down the ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy are so essential; by deconstructing common historical tropes, they allow audiences to analyze history through a familiar yet still newly enlightening lens. In doing so, hopefully these people will apply their subsequent analyses to improve their daily, peaceful co-existence with others.
The Academy Awards receive a fair share of criticism, but I must commend them for shortlisting Land of Mine; without such a distinction, I probably never would’ve seen it. And isn’t that the point of the Oscars after all, to record for historical posterity what movies should be seen both now and in the years to come?