Land of Mine confronts the aspects of war that Dunkirk avoids
Dunkirk was an incredible cinematic experience... but if you want to understand what war is really about, watch this Danish film with a terrible title
Dunkirk has garnered incredible media attention, and sparked something of a nostalgia trip, looking back to the days of the stiff upper-lip and that so called 'Dunkirk spirit'. With newspapers running reprints of 1940 editions, interviews with veterans, and Private Eye referencing Brexit, it's no wonder you might have missed something. You might have missed the release of a different film entirely.
Land of Mine, Danish director Martin Zandvliet's newest outing, is the technical and thematic antithesis of Nolan's Dunkirk. But the two films do share some interesting similarities.
Zandvliet's story, set just after the end of the War, follows a group of young German PoWs forced to clear thousands upon thousands of landmines from the Danish coast with little more than their bare hands. Nolan, taken aback during his research by the youth of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, made his characters very young too. So what we have this summer are two WWII films using youth and confinement to convey the horrors of war, and both in coastal settings where serenity is set against obliteration.
Despite these similarities, only one of these films properly engages with Second World War subject matter, and it isn't Nolan's.
With youth comes innocence, and innocent suffering is perhaps the most dramatic device; it is ripe with thematic potential. But if you're going to populate your film with young men suffering, you'd better do it for a good reason or else run the risk of baseless sentimentality.
Innocence and moral culpability lie at the heart of Land of Mine. The question of whether the boys somehow deserve to suffer for the wrongdoings of their warmongering elders is brought to the fore by the wavering attitude of Sgt. Rasmussen, the Danish officer who commands them. To-ing and fro-ing between compassion and brutal discipline, sometimes as a result of his own suffering, he reminds us that occasionally the innocent must inherit a debt. The extent of how much they should pay is the open question.
In Dunkirk, a single line from Mark Rylance' civvy skipper echoes a similar sentiment: 'Men my age dictate this war – why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?' But that's pretty much it. Of course a large amount of the soldiers stuck on the beach were very young, but the specific portrayal of youth in Nolan's film would seem to exist for little more reason than because bad things happening to young people is hard to watch. This is confirmed by the copious amounts of 'staring into the middle distance' that these atypically attractive lads seem to do.
Nolan fans will argue that he never intended to make a 'war film' anyway and that Dunkirk is a suspense or disaster movie instead. Nolan's intention, however, has very little to do with it. Art depicting historical events become part of a cultural memory of those events. You can't, as an artist, expect to involve yourself in building or revising that memory without respecting certain truths. A filmmaker, for example, who was to make a mere prison escape movie set in a WWII concentration camp without any reference to antisemitism, would be skating on very thin ice indeed.
But nobody who sees the film will emerge from the cinema any wiser as to why the British were there, why they needed to escape, and just what stopped the Germans getting to them (the French averted disaster at least as much as the British, but you won't find that out from watching this film). As far as Dunkirk is a 'disaster film', it's not portraying the avoidance of a natural disaster, but a man-made one. By eschewing politics altogether in favour of added action and suspense, Nolan's Dunkirk memory is a shallow one.
There's no doubt that Dunkirk is a technical and cinematic masterpiece; it's a must see movie for its ambition alone. But ultimately it's a lesser war film than Land of Mine, and while it may do other things, it is necessarily a war film. Suspense films are all the more suspenseful when you know what everyone's running from and why. To its detriment, Dunkirk keeps this information from the audience. Land of Mine is more clearly a war film, a good one at that, but it does suspense too, and very well.
Don't see one of these over the other, see them both.