Hell on Heaven – Denmark and the Afterlife of War

in 13th Jameson Cinefest – Miskolc International Film Festival

by Csaba Tóth

Denmark’s beatiful, sandy beaches are abandoned. You can hear only the waves and the sound of seagulls, and feel the sunshine on your skin. For most of the people this place is like heaven, a landscape of idyllic postcards, but for Martin Zandvliet, the director of the movie Land of Mine (Under sandet) it is hell on earth. A land where death finds everyone who doesn’t step to the right place.

On the surface, Zandvliet’s film looks like a classic World War II movie, but it’s much more interesting than that. Let’s begin with the fact that its story takes place after the end of the war, and it shows us a part of European history that is not well known. It has the bravery to say not all the German soldiers were bad guys, but rather that many of them were victims of the era – and it also shows that being the winner of the war doesn’t necessarily mean being a good guy either. Here the Germans are not bloody-handed Nazis, but mostly innocent child soldiers, who have to suffer for everything their parents and grandparents did in the last few years of war. Are the children responsible for the actions of their forebears? That’s one of the many questions Zandvliet asks from the viewer, and these kind of questions are so uncomfortable that we don’t always have the right answers for them.

Land of Mine has a universal story about sin, atonement, revenge, friendship and forgiveness, but at heart it is a well-acted character piece built on Roland Møller’s incredible performance – his Danish officer character Sergeant Carl Rasmussen can be a sensitive father figure and a cruel leader at the same time. We can see him right in the first minute of the movie, as he beats the hell out of a German soldier in the time of the German army’s secession from Denmark. Next time we see him as a commander of young German soldiers who have to deactivate more than 50 000 mines from the sandy beaches of the country. The character has an incredible journey from being a racist, vengeful soldier to becoming a humanist who can forgive to others, and see them as human beings, not just as his enemies.

The unusual locations – the sandy beaches of Denmark – create a unique atmosphere, and the mine deactivating scenes are so tense that if you’ve seen the movie, you will remember it for a lifetime. The war is over now, but its remains are still beneath the sand, and no one can be safe until they can’t handle the truth about their past. Land of Mine looks like a much bigger movie than it is. The core of it is a well-crafted chamber piece. One location, few characters and an emotional barrier the characters have to cross for reaching their salvation. As a result of the magical landscape and Camilla Hjelm’s stunning cinematography, the movie looks more monumental than its story. But the deep humanity in it really deserved it.

It’s sad, but Land of Mine’s themes have a resonance in 2016 too, when child soldiers are normal parts of armies in Africa and in the Middle East. The movie won not just the FIPRESCI Jury Prize of Jameson Cinefest Miskolc International Film Festival, but the Adolf Zucker prize and the Ecumenical Jury prize too.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson