I have just returned from a trip back to Denmark during which I stayed over with a friend of mine who had prepared a few movies for us to watch. We ended up choosing “Under Sandet”, a Danish movie from 2015 which has received an Academy nomination in the Best Foreign Language category. If it sounds unfamiliar it might help to know that it is released abroad as “Land of Mine”. I am not in the habit of reviewing new movies, but both the timing and the quality of this movie is exceptional.
The backstory of the movie is that during second world war the German army fortified the entire Atlantic and North Sea coastline in anticipation of an allied invasion. This included the Danish west coast. The hulking bunkers are in many cases still there as silent, grim reminders of a violent past, but a more immediate problem after the war were the millions of mines buried just under the sand. These had to be removed.
The sentiment was that those who placed them there could please remove them again so some two thousand German soldiers were sent to Denmark to clean the beaches. From an outside perspective that sounds reasonable enough. However the German army in 1945 was a rag-tag collection of children and old men. Hardly the gruesome Nazi’s that people loathed. The movie follows such a group of children dressed up as soldiers who is sent to do mine cleaning service. Remove 45.000 mines in three months and they can go home.
Their supervisor Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) hates the Germans. We see that in the opening where he assaults and beats some German soldiers in a convoy simply for being German. Sgt. Rasmussen receives his troop of German “soldiers” in the same spirit and openly declares that he does not care if they all die clearing mines. The same goes for Karin (Laura Bro), the farmer who is paid to feed the soldier. She takes her revenge by simply not feeding them while Lt. Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), the pioneer of the engineering corps in charge of the operation, takes a sick pleasure in killing as many as possible.
And a deadly task it is. Even for skilled minesweepers this is tricky business and with an average of six mines per hour it does not take a genius to figure out that from time to time something will go wrong. The movie has this slow pace that almost lulls you into complacency and then, boom, somebody blows up and every time it happens the simple brutality is shocking.
As already mentioned the troop consists of boys, not men. They hardly need to shave, they are shaking with fear of their task and they are completely out of place. The only army training they seem to have gotten is to do what they are told and to reply correctly to shouting. Beside that they are just big school children. There is a quiet despair to them as if they are accepting their lot, but at the same time do not understand why fate has placed them where they are. Soon, very soon, they are transformed from German soldiers to individual, gentle characters. Sebastian, Helmut, Ludwig, Wilhelm and the twins Ernst and Werner (Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Oskar Bökelmann, Leon Seidel, Emil and Oskar Belton) and so on. We, the audience soon find it difficult to hate them and gradually Sgt. Rasmussen must recognize them for what they are. It is that phenomenon that it is easy to hate people as a group but very difficult to hate them as individual human beings that is at the heart of the movie. As the boys are broken down, reduced both in number and spirit they come into focus as human beings even to cold hearted Karin.
This is a deeply humanistic message that goes much further than the movie and the shame that is felt by Sgt. Rasmussen and Karin can easily be transferred to other issues where groups are hated collectively and that is why this movie feels relevant today rather than just poking to our bad conscience of something that happened 70 years ago.
“Under Sandet” is a slow-moving movie, but it is a movie that grabs you around the heart and moves you, especially if like me you cannot accept cruelty to children. In a world of fast paced movies, it is an almost shocking experience to watch a movie that takes its time to let you know the characters. And double shocking when it then blows them away.
As far as I can see the movies in the Best Foreign Language category are all strong and I doubt “Under Sandet” will win it, but it is a worthy candidate and I can only recommend it.