When prejudices begin to peel
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