The Danish movie “Land of Mine,” which recently competed for a foreign-language Oscar, is the kind of film that becomes an instant classic: in this case, a World War II drama that manages to evoke the scope and solemn emotion of the best of that genre while relating an untold story with bold vision and assurance.
The action takes place at the end of the war, when German prisoners — most of them teenagers conscripted in desperation by Adolf Hitler — were sent to the Danish coast to clear the more than 2 million land mines that had been planted there. Against a backdrop of stunning windswept natural beauty, the fictional characters in “Land of Mine” re-create the meticulous, often deadly work of locating and defusing the buried bombs, which lie in wait with fatal certainty. Recalling the excruciatingly tense action of “The Hurt Locker,” this thriller-cum-morality tale does a superb job of ratcheting up a taut sense of dread and anticipation. Even more effectively, writer-director Martin Zandvliet introduces a welcome moral argument, as the spiritual costs of postwar hatred and retribution take on grimly personal proportions.
The ethical dilemma of sending boys to do men’s work, to rectify a debt they incurred mostly as cannon fodder, is personified by the Danish military man who trains and oversees them, a hard-bitten sergeant named Rasmussen (Roland Moller). As “Land of Mine” opens, the POWs are subjected to verbal and physical abuse by Danish civilians finally venting their hatred for their longtime enemies. Rasmussen shares their contempt, but as the movie proceeds, he begins to see the futility and cruelty of an endeavor that assumes the contours of revenge at its most brutal, rather than rough justice.
The story of “Land of Mine” is a fascinating and largely unknown one, but what makes the movie special is Zandvliet’s command of space and visual language. Photographed by the director’s wife, Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, it’s a canvas of stark, high-contrast images of bodies against the white swath of Danish beach, the de-saturated palette and wide frame suggesting both inexorability and a sense of almost irrational dislocation: How can such a monstrous, misguided enterprise be transpiring in a place of such awesome, serene beauty?
As Rasmussen processes his own sense of professional and personal trauma, “Land of Mine” embraces similarly vast questions, none more vexing than the enduring prison of man’s inhumanity to man. Both grimly naturalistic and infused with classical values at their most thoughtfully composed, “Land of Mine” is epic but deeply intimate; elegant but tough. Just when viewers might think they don’t make war pictures the way they used to, Zandvliet has come along and done it — even as he pushes the form forward with intellectual rigor, unerring clarity and stylistic panache.
R. At Cinema Arts Theatre and Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains violence, grisly images and obscenity. In Danish with subtitles. 101 minutes.