Dunkirk – 3/5 –
ALTHOUGH Dunkirk is winning all the summer cinematic plaudits, Land of Mine is more than its equal.
Both films have the Second World War as their theme. But while Dunkirk looks at an event that is a key part of British war time history – the evacuation of troops from the beaches at Dunkirk as part of Operation Dynamo – Land of Mine covers a less known subject. It is based on the clearing of mines laid by the German army along the Danish coast by German prisoners of war. They are German lambs to the slaughter – and lambs they were with many being no more than boys.
The films could not be more different. Dunkirk makes for a stunning visual experience as Spitfires and Stukas slug it out over the Channel, boats are routinely sunk (by German torpedoes) and soldiers (sitting ducks) are strafed awaiting their evacuation. An armada of private boats come to the rescue with Mr Dawson (Sir Mark Rylance) and his pleasure boat to the fore.
The film is littered with cinematic talent – Tom Hardy (Farrier, a brave Spitfire pilot), Sir Kenneth Branagh (a fictional Commander Bolton but based on the very real pier master James Campbell Clouston) and Cillian Murphy (a traumatised soldier rescued from the sea by Mr Dawson). Even Harry Styles (One Direction) makes his acting debut as Alex, a soldier who eventually (and with a lot of luck along the way) gets rescued by Mr Dawson. An accomplished debut – and not one musical note sung in anger.
Dunkirk is classic Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento and Interstellar). It is three films in one, each with an individual timeline within the framework of the evacuation. It is what Imax is made for. It’s like a ride on the Blackpool Big Dipper and I am sure Nolan will receive a hatful of awards as a result. Rightly so.
But it is not without fault. The film cuts between the three themes which can jar (others argue it helps drive the film’s momentum).
Also, although the viewer feels as if they are right there in Farrier’s cockpit as he engages in a string of dog fights over the Channel, it is difficult to build empathy with any of the characters (Styles’ Alex included). The film does not give us that opportunity. We are not allowed to get inside any of the characters with maybe the exception of Rylance’s Dawson, the stand-out performance of the film.
It also feels as if the horror of war is underplayed. Yes, we see troops strafed on the pier and the beaches but there is little bloody aftermath to remind us that war is horrific.
Land of Mine –
In contrast, Land of Mine pans out like a horror movie as it follows a unit of young German prisoners of war given the task in 1945 of clearing the thousands of mines left by their army to prevent an Allied invasion from the sea.
They are overseen by Sargent Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) who we see in the opening sequences of the film viscously assault a prisoner of war in a long line of marching prisoners who has the temerity to be carrying a Danish flag. He is beaten black and blue. It is a moment more visceral than anything that Dunkirk has to offer.
The 12 youngsters are billeted in a shed next to a farm lived in by a mother and daughter. With little training behind them, no food on offer and Rasmussen constantly snarling at them, the twelve spend most of their time lying on their fronts painstakingly removing the detonators from mines they find buried in the sand.
There are no mine detectors to assist them. Just sticks which they prod into the sand to find the mines, a helmet (about as protective as a condom with a hole in it) and their wits. Life and a high probability of death or awful maiming.
It all makes for harrowing viewing (I turned away on many an occasion fearing the worst) as the unit’s numbers are whittled down in devastating fashion. One maiming will stick in my mind for a long time to come. More bloody, more realistic than anything Nolan’s sanitised Dunkirk has to offer.
Yet Land of Mine is more than a gruesome watch. Slowly, we see Rasmussen shake off his demons (a result of his own war time experience) and build a relationship with the boys under his command. He plays football with them and steals food so they do not starve (much to the anger of his superior, a vile Captain Ebbe Jensen – Mikel Boe Folsgaard – who seeks retribution).
We also see some of the boys’ characters emerge, especially Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hofmann) who against the odds builds a bond with Rasmussen – as well as a wooden contraption designed to ensure both mines do not go undetected and the boys get a little more protection.
There are setbacks along the way, most notably one involving Rasmussen’s devoted collie and the other based around the mother’s daughter, but ultimately the Sargent shows that he is nothing but a honourable and compassionate man.
Land of Mine, directed by Martin Zandvliet, is an important addition to the library of war cinema. It sheds light on a war time story that few people outside Denmark are aware of.
Would we today allow prisoners of war to be used in this way? Of course not. It is as despicable as the fate that awaited Japanese prisoners of war, as lovers of David Lean’s 1957 classic The Bridge Over The River Kwai know all too well.
Patriotic though I am and as much as I was enthralled by Hardy’s piloting skills and Rylance’s quiet command of the Moonstone, I would choose Land of Mine over Dunkirk every time. War cannot be dumbed down. Land of Mine shows it as it really was, bloody warts and all.
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LAND OF MINE – 5/5
Director: Martin Zandvliet
Sargent Carl Rasmussen: Roland Moller
Captain Ebbe Jensen: Mikel Folsgaard
Sebastian Schumann: Louis Hofmann
DUNKIRK – 3/5
Director: Christopher Nolan
Farrier: Tom Hardy
Mr Dawson: Sir Christopher Rylance
Commander Bolton: Sir Kenneth Branagh
Alex: Harry Styles