“I’ll make it home”
War is a horrific reality that forces people into doing terrible things. Everyone sees him/herself as being on the side of “good” and “righteous”—look at the discrepancies from one history book to another in how education systems describe certain events to shine one’s own nation in a rosier tint than it might actually deserve. There are of course exceptions, though. This idea obviously doesn’t work in regards to genocide, but I don’t think any Germans today (white supremacists excepted) believe Hitler did God’s work or are being brainwashed into believing it by their teachers. So when World War II ended, Nazis of all ages were universally despised with reason. And the world suddenly needed to decide whether its desire for retribution rendered them indistinguishable from the enemy.
The circumstances portrayed in Martin Zandvliet‘s wrenching drama Under sandet [Land of Mine] is one such test of morality. Here’s a country in Demark with thousands of German soldiers and even more landmines hidden on its west coast beaches as a result of believing the Allies would invade there. The estimate was over two million explosive devices needing to be defused, dismantled, and removed from these public spaces now that the fighting had ceased. It’s not a crazy idea to make the men who put them there fulfill those duties. Why risk the safety of Danish families when they had suffered so much at the hands of this occupying force? And if a Nazi was blown-up in the process, at least the bomb was no longer a threat.
What criteria should be used to justify this decision? Should this makeshift bomb squad consist of the officers who gave the orders to distribute them? Should the job double as a means of capital punishment wherein the task of handling six to eight live mines every hour proves worse than a firing squad because at least the latter is something for which you can prepare? Or should the roster of POWs be filled by anyone who fought for the Axis powers regardless of rank, capabilities, or age? If the latter, what’s each sub-category’s cut-off? Can we truly draw one when it for all intents and purposes declares a specific sub-section of the population primed to die? That type of arbitrary filing is akin to race and religion.
You have to ask yourself what you’d do. It’s one thing to want the enemy to suffer for the pain they caused, but it’s another to inflict it with as much intent as they did. You can be the farm woman (Laura Bro‘s Karin) happy to watch the prisoners held on her land get food poisoning, believing it to be revenge despite their contracting it being accidental. You can be Lt. Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), an officer relishing his position of authority to use Germans as expendable labor he’d rather see die than finish their task. Or you could be Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller), a man with searing rage who’s quick to punch an adult Nazi but not stomach willfully sending a teenager to his death.
Zandvliet’s depiction of Lt. Ebbe Jensen as a remorseless German-speaking taskmaster cannot be taken as anything less than an intentional juxtaposition. This is a Danish film set on the very Denmark beaches these landmines were hidden and yet we’re introduced to a man in uniform yelling German to a bunch of scared boys. He’s thwacking them with sticks when they do something wrong during bomb diffusion courses. He forces them to practice on live mines in a bunker so those who can’t cut it don’t hit the sand. Jensen may not hope each and every one of them is blown-up by their army’s own weapons as karmic retribution, but feels no guilt when they are. They’re German and don’t deserve kindness—valid in principle, not necessarily in practice.
It honestly seems like this is the film we’re to get, one of brutal vengeance. How can we not when we meet Rasmussen leaving his car to head-butt a Nazi for carrying a Denmark flag? Thankfully Zandvliet knows this is not the way to tell his story. Even though we are supposed to sympathize with the plight of these German boys, making Nazis into the victims and Danes into villains would simply be too much to feasibly handle. He must show us Rasmussen in such a livid state that we fear to even begin imagining the cause, (How many friends and family members died in this war?), because it allows us to differentiate emotion from bloodlust. He’s earned the right to be harsh, but not to be blind.
The same can be said for the Nazis as far as earning their spot in the sand. But boys? This is where your morality is tested because you must figure out whether you’re as unmoving as Jensen or humanely malleable as Rasmussen. You must look Ernst (Emil Belton) and Werner Lessner (Oskar Belton) in the eyes while watching their optimism get erased by their situation’s futility. You must endure Helmut Morbach’s (Joel Basman) understandable frustration and pragmatic cynicism while appreciating his desire to uphold the duty of a uniform he probably just inherited—his drive for power stronger than any allegiance to Hitler. And you must feel each gut-punch of horror that risks breaking Sebastian Schumann’s (Louis Hofmann) resolve to remain positive, honorable, and thankful for his life.
These are children. They’re the future of a nation that needs leaders devoid of the hate their Nazi officers possessed. Rasmussen sees this. He knows they aren’t lamenting their defeat as much as fearing their fate. In order to get them moving in the sand he must treat them with the humanity their elders didn’t possess. No nation is better than the way in which it treats its prisoners of war. We are better than our enemy because we refuse to disregard what it is that makes us equal despite also understanding what makes them criminally different. These boys need food, incentive, and especially hope in order to work. Once hope is gone, there’s nothing stopping them from simply walking onto the closest mine to end the charade.
With the fighting over they become innocents—pawns made to battle a war created by their fathers. They aren’t military men or men with enough experience or maturity to inherently do their job without an albatross of fear causing them to scream for their mothers when limbs are lost. As one man revels in their demise, another sees the torture underlying their job’s necessity. Mistakes are made, emotions run high, and the line between toughness and evil does blur, but at the end of the day no one wants to see a child die. It’s simple to hate the swastika and the remorseless face wearing it, but that’s not what Rasmussen sees. He’s confronted with kids like Ludwig Haffke (Oskar Bökelmann), dreamers glad the war has finished too.
The Belton twins, Basman, and the other boys deliver authentic performances that stay true to their disparate roles. Whether young enough to embrace fantasy or jaded enough to scoff when others do, they all confront the truth that their lives are no longer their own. Hofmann’s Schumann is the standout—the one who can see past the lies and dreams while still remaining hopeful the evil his countrymen held didn’t consume the world. And Møller’s Rasmussen shows how humanity can prevail. No matter how dark life gets or how dark your heart grows, war isn’t infinite. Those responsible must pay with their lives and those forced to follow should be punished too. To kill them all, however, means nobody’s left to learn the lesson of their defeat.
 Left to right: Joel Basman as Helmut Morbach and Louis Hofmann as Sebastian Schumann. Photo by Henrik Petit, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to right: Louis Hofmann as Sebastian Schumann and Roland Møller as Sgt. Rasmussen. Photo by Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to right: Oskar Bökelmann as Ludwig and Emil Belton as Ernst Lessner. Photo by Henrik Petit, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics