When prej­u­dices be­gin to peel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Is­sues that were key fac­tors in the re­cent Dutch elec­tion are clearly present this year in two of the five fi­nal­ists in the best for­eign lan­guage film Os­car race. Both are from Scan­di­navia and are get­ting a lim­ited re­lease in cine­mas. The two films couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent in treat­ment or pe­riod, but both ex­plore the con­se­quences of racial prej­u­dice and big­otry. The Swedish A Man Called Ove is a pleas­antly sen­ti­men­tal, con­tem­po­rary com­edy about a grouch who turns out not to be so bad, while the Dan­ish Land of Mine is an in­tense drama set in May 1945, as the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion of Den­mark comes to a bit­ter end.

I vividly re­mem­ber, at the age of five, my mother driv­ing me to the south­ern coast of Eng­land where, she as­sured me, I would see the sea for the first time in my life. In fact, the beaches were closed, barbed wire mak­ing them in­ac­ces­si­ble, and signs ev­ery­where warned of mines buried un­der the sand. Mines were also used by the Germans to stave off a pos­si­ble Al­lied in­va­sion that never hap­pened: about 2.2 mil­lion of them were placed along Den­mark’s west coast and one of the im­me­di­ate chal­lenges fac­ing the newly lib­er­ated na­tion at the end of the war was to clear these mines and make the beaches safe again.

There is, of course, no love lost be­tween the Danes and the Germans af­ter the bru­tal oc­cu­pa­tion, and when sergeant Carl Ras­mussen (Roland Moller), driv­ing past a unit of cap­tured Germans, spots one car­ry­ing a sou­venired Dan­ish flag he stops to beat the hap­less prisoner to a pulp: “This is my land,” he tells him. “You’re not wel­come here.” Where have we heard that, and much more re­cently? Be­fore long Ras­mussen, whose uni­form bears the in­signia of the Bri­tish Para­chute Reg­i­ment, is as­signed to su­per­vise a small unit of Germans who — pre­sum­ably against all Geneva Con­ven­tion reg­u­la­tions — have been given the task of clear­ing 45,000 mines from a re­mote beach. These Germans are all very young, teenagers pre­sum­ably con­scripted into the army in the last, chaotic months of the war. They are given a su­per­fi­cial train­ing in mine re­moval — dur­ing which one of them is killed — and put to work with the prom­ise they will be sent home once all the mines are re­moved.

The boys, about 15 of them, are bil­leted in aus­tere con­di­tions on a prop­erty ap­par­ently owned by a woman (Laura Bro) who lives there with her small daugh­ter. Was her hus­band killed in the war? We don’t know, but then we don’t know much about any of the char­ac­ters. The Germans in­clude iden­ti­cal twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Bel­ton), the trau­ma­tised Hel­mut (Joel Bas­man) and Se­bas­tian (Louis Hof­mann), who be­comes the group’s spokesman. But we’re told noth­ing of their back­grounds, or how they were drafted into the war. And, cru­cially, we know noth­ing at all about Ras­mussen, ex­cept that he seems to be alone — apart from his beloved dog — and that he hates Germans.

Clearly the film’s writer-di­rec­tor Martin Zand­vliet, mak­ing his third fea­ture, de­lib­er­ately with­held this in­for­ma­tion, and pre­sum­ably his in­ten­tion was to con­cen­trate not on the past but on the here and now. Ras­mussen is a re­luc­tant over­seer of these pris­on­ers, pro­fess­ing not to care that they are be­ing starved be­cause hardto-ob­tain sup­plies are with­held from them. At one point they steal an­i­mal fod­der to eat, unaware that it is con­tam­i­nated by rat fae­ces, and be­come ter­ri­bly sick.

But, in­evitably, Ras­mussen changes his mind about his “boys” as he slowly gets closer to them and wit­nesses their courage and suf­fer­ing. As ev­ery­one knows, we fear — and some­times hate — the “other”, the foreigner, the stranger, un­til we re­alise that, deep down, they’re just like us. And that’s the sim­ple story at the heart of Land of Mine, a hand­somely made, pow­er­fully acted but not par­tic­u­larly prob­ing drama. The scenes of the boys de­fus­ing the mines — rem­i­nis­cent of such fine post­war films as the Michael Pow­ellEmeric Press­burger pro­duc­tion The Small Back Room (1949) and Robert Aldrich’s Ten Sec­onds to Hell (1958) — are al­most un­bear­ably sus­pense­ful, but Zand­vliet hardly ques­tions the moral­ity of us­ing Ger­man pris­on­ers in this way.

Given that the film’s Dan­ish ti­tle is Un­der sandet ( Un­der the Sand) the English ti­tle seems an­noy­ingly arch. A Man Called Ove has been a huge box-of­fice hit A Man Called Ove in Swe­den, one of the big­gest suc­cesses in the coun­try’s long film his­tory. Ove (Rolf Lass­gard) is an el­derly busy­body with a deep-seated con­tempt, bor­der­ing on ha­tred, for any­one who doesn’t “be­long” to his own vi­sion of a Swe­den that no longer ex­ists. He lives in a cosy sub­ur­ban area where he in­fu­ri­ates his neigh­bours by de­mand­ing they stick to all the — some­times petty — rules. He can’t for­give or for­get the fact that he was voted off the Res­i­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion, but he still be­haves as though he were a fig­ure of au­thor­ity in this small com­mu­nity.

He is, in short, a real pain; but he wasn’t al­ways like that, as lengthy flash­backs, fea­tur­ing Vik­tor Baa­goe as Ove as a boy and Filip Berg as a young man, at­test. As we dis­cover more about Ove we warm to him, just as he slowly warms to­wards the Ira­nian woman, Par­vaneh (Ba­har Pars), who has moved into the neigh­bour­hood with her young daugh­ters and im­prac­ti­cal Swedish hus­band, Pa­trick (To­bias Alm­borg).

Ove’s deep-seated prej­u­dices even ex­tend to an­i­mals; he hates cats, he says, and fre­quently throws hard ob­jects at an­i­mals un­wise enough to show up near his house, but when a per­sis­tent stray fe­line moves in with him he, not sur­pris­ingly, comes to like it.

With this film prej­u­dices are set aside on two lev­els. Ove gets closer to Par­vaneh and her kids — and also re­thinks his bit­ter, long-run­ning feud with his former best friend — while at the same time the au­di­ence, whose first im­pres­sion of Ove is that he’s an in­ter­fer­ing old bigot, warms to the char­ac­ter as we dis­cover more about his past and the fact he’s find­ing it very hard to live with­out his beloved wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll), who has re­cently died. So hard, in fact, that he makes nu­mer­ous at­tempts to com­mit sui­cide, but is spec­tac­u­larly un­suc­cess­ful at it.

For the non-Swede, one of the in­trigu­ing el­e­ments of the film is the de­pic­tion of so­cial work­ers who visit reg­u­larly but are de­spised by Ove as “the white shirts” and are ap­par­ently em­ployed by a pri­vate com­pany. The film’s writer-di­rec­tor, Hannes Holm — adapt­ing a best­selling book by Fredrik Back­man — doesn’t shy from turn­ing these well-mean­ing bu­reau­crats into broad car­i­ca­tures and, in fact, cliches are never too far away in the un­fold­ing of this man’s life and times.

As a cau­tion­ary tale, A Man Called Ove makes its points with some suc­cess and both Lass­gard, as the in­fu­ri­at­ing yet ul­ti­mately sym­pa­thetic Ove, and Pars as the in­tel­li­gent and re­source­ful Par­vaneh, give stel­lar per­for­mances.

WE FEAR THE ‘OTHER’, UN­TIL WE RE­ALISE THEY’RE JUST LIKE US

Louis Hof­mann and Roland Moller in Land of Mine; Rolf Lass­gard, be­low, in

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