Rated R. Running Time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our content rating: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In his Oscar-nominated film, Danish director/writer Martin Zandvliet gives us a new slant on WW 2, as well as an always needed lesson on human decency. It is May, 1945, and though there is much fighting still ahead in Germany, the five-year-long nightmare of Nazi occupation is over for the people of Denmark. But as we will see, there are two lingering effects of that Nazi occupation—a deeply embedded hatred for their conquerors, and the dangerous land mines that the Germans had planted along the long western coast of the country just in case the Allies might try to come ashore there. Indeed, there are from a little over one million to two million of them.
Just before the title the film begins, we see a long column of German prisoners being marched along a country road. Danish Army Sgt. Rassmussen (Roland Moller) is heading in the opposite direction when he spots a prisoner carrying a Danish flag, obviously intending it as a souvenir. Stopping, he springs out and starts beating and kicking the man. He even hits another German who protests the cruel beating as he cries out that they must, “Get lost!” They do not belong, nor are they welcome here. “This my land,” he says. Thus, the film’s title takes on a double meaning.
Jump to a group of a group of German teenage boys who ae members of the Volkssturm, a German national militia created by the desperate Hitler because there were no more adult men available for fighting. The gruff-voiced Lt. Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is telling them that since Germans planted the mines, it will be Germans who will clear them. He informs them, “Denmark is not your friend. No one wants to see you here.” Their brief training period of defusing the mines ends with each of them entering an enclosed area to defuse a live mine. As each boy nervously unscrews the cap and slowly removes the fuse, tension mounts. The exceeding nervous boy is the one whom we expect to fail, but—.
The remaining boys are given over to the care of Sgt. Rassmussen, who harbors the same hateful hostility toward them exhibited by Ebbe. He harshly addresses them on the section of the beach they are assigned to clear. They must clear 45,000 before they will be allowed to go home. Among the dozen and a half boys are twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Belton), bricklayers who are looking forward to returning to their homeland because there will be so much work for them in restoring its bombed-out buildings. Helmut (Joel Basman) is the cynical malcontent, always seeing the worst side of things. The opposite of Helmut is Wilhelm (Leon Seidel), always looking on the bright side. Emerging as the group’s natural leader is Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), and even he looks like he should be attending high school classes rather dressed in a German uniform.
The boys are set to work, toiling fearfully as they unscrew the mine caps and slowly remove the fuses. The Sergeant drives them relentlessly, herding them before sundown into a shed that he locks by dropping a bar across the door. About a hundred or so yards away a woman (Laura Bro) whose beach side farmstead they’re quartered on often gazes at them with disdain. Her little daughter Elizabeth (Zoe Zandvliet) is too young to know to hate them, so when one of the boys approaches her to talk and bandages the damaged leg of her doll, the girl is all smiles. Their friendly exchange ends abruptly when the mother storms over to them, sternly warning her daughter to stay away from the Germans.
As the days pass, hunger grips the boys. Neither when they arise, nor when they are penned in at night is there any food. At first there are just complaints among the boys about their lack of meals, but as the days go by, they become faint, even sick, with hunger. The latter effect comes about after one of them sneaks out at night and brings back some grain from the woman’s shed. The next day the boys are vomiting. When the angry Rassmussen investigates, the woman explains that there were animal droppings amidst the grain. Sebastian tries to apologize that he did not prevent the boy from sneaking out, but Rassmussen wants no talking from him.
At last, concerned for the slow progress of their work, rather than for the boys’ welfare, Rassmussen takes it upon himself to go and appropriate some food. The next morning the first boy out the door is pleasantly surprised to find loaves of bread and a small pile of vegetables awaiting them. Slowly as the boys make progress Rassmussen’s attitude begins to change toward Sebastian as they begin to talk together. One night as he is putting the cross bar in place, he drops it, leaving the door unbarred. No doubt an incident from another night hastened him on a new course. He had witnessed Epp and a couple of his men viciously humiliate one of the boys and had hastened to stop the abuse. Also, Epp had criticized him for sneaking food out for the boys. When the hands of one of the boys are blown off, the Sergeant especially softens. He even joins the group in a spirited game of soccer and cheers them on when they set up foot races on the beach. During a conversation with Sebastian he almost becomes fatherly toward the boy. The film seems to be following the usual path of the curmudgeon coming over to the side of the despised, but then something terrible happens that revives Rassmussen hatred of all things German, and the boys are abruptly worst off than before. By now we have become to care deeply for these boys, so that when one of them breaks under the intolerable strain with tragic consequences, we feel their hurt and despair. What transpires in the last act of the film lifts our spirits again, reviving our hope in humanity.
This is a film that could not have been produced during the years following the war when everything pointed to the bestiality of the Germans and the nobility of the Allies. Only with the passage of years have filmmakers shown that there is a dark side to all humans, that the Danes, who so nobly saved the lives of so many Jews, were also capable of cruelty toward the enemy. It helps that the filmmaker chose boys as the prisoners rather than hardened older soldiers. It would be almost impossible to arouse in the audience compassion for Nazis guilty of so many atrocities toward peasants and Jews alike. There is no talk of politics among the boys, no indication that any of them had been fanatical members of the Hitler Youth pouring out with uplifted arms their adoration for their Führer. Only boys expressing their hopes and dreams of returning to their homes. When Epp betrays them (the remnant, that is, who survive a horrendous accident) by sending them to another beach encampment to remove still more mines, instead of to their homeland as promised, we see that he is little better than the Nazis who had driven him so deeply into hatred and prejudice. (As I write this, the end scene of the animated version of Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind in which the farm animals, once enslaved to a human, watch their leader, the pig named Napoleon, in the house playing cards with a human and they cannot tell the difference between the two.) Powerless to counter the orders of his superior, Rassmussen is left to decide what he should do in the face of such injustice.
This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP.