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    Movie Review

    Denmark’s Oscar nominee explores a moral minefield

    Oskar Bokelmann (left) and Louis Hofmann in “Land of Mine.”
    Sony Pictures Classics via AP
    Oskar Bokelmann (left) and Louis Hofmann in “Land of Mine.”

    Danish soldiers screaming abuse at helpless prisoners sound a lot like Nazi soldiers doing the same. Danish director Martin Zandvliet’s “Land of Mine” makes that point early in the movie.

    In 1945, after the Nazis have been defeated in Denmark, Rasmussen (Roland Moller), a sergeant in the Danish Brigade (a military unit made up of Danish refugees in Sweden), assaults a soldier in a long line of German POWs. He punches him, knocks him down, kicks him, attacks a soldier who tries to help his victim, and kicks their behinds as they hobble away.

    Where did that rage come from? Five years of occupation, of course, but the film never offers any particulars to point out why Rasmussen is so furious. Nor does it mention the horrors of the Nazi era, except for the 2 million mines planted on the west coast of the country.

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    These are to be cleared by teenage POWs, more or less as human minesweepers. It’s hard not to pity them. But what might they have done in the war? As ongoing conflicts today have shown, children make some of the best soldiers. One appreciates the desire of the filmmaker to let the audience fill in the back story, but Rasmussen’s behavior reflects badly on the Danish and heightens sympathy for the POWs.

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    Gaining in intensity as it moves along, “Land of Mine” combines the suspense of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Wages of Fear” (1953) with the psychological complexity of David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and maybe a dab of the adolescent allegory of “Lord of the Flies.” Zandvliet’s film was nominated for this year’s foreign language film Oscar but lost to Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman.”

    Rasmussen is put in charge of a squad of teenage POWs — scared, dirty, and starving – enlisted to clear a quiet stretch of beach seeded with thousands of mines. How do they fare? Let’s just say that kids start blowing up during their training in bomb disposal.

    Brutish at first, Rasmussen starts to develop some sympathy for his crew (his only companion is his pet dog). Especially for Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), who is more mature and smarter than the other teens. Sebastian is a natural leader. He convinces his fellow prisoners that they have to cooperate and work hard to get the job done and return home.

    “They need you.” Rasmussen tells him. “I need you.” He’s a good soldier. And we know what that means if he’s fighting for the wrong side.

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    ½
    LAND OF MINE

    Written and directed by Martin Zandvliet. Starring Roland Moller, Louis Hofmann, Emil Belton, Oskar Belton. At Kendall Square. 101 minutes. R (violence, some grisly images, and language). In Danish, with subtitles.

    Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.