Courtesy of Netflix (which in context means courtesy of my brother, whose gift the subscription to Netflix was), I have just seen two extraordinary films. One, “Land of Mine,” is a drama. The other “Under Fire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro, ” is a documentary.
In both cases, moving isn’t the word for it. They are true experiences, that will not leave you unchanged.
“Land of Mine” uses fiction to tell the story of some of the young German POW’s in Denmark who, in 1954, were assigned the extremely dangerous task of removing the two million mines the German army buried on Denmark’s west coast against a possible Allied invasion. (More than half those who were assigned the task were killed or injured, the film says.) But the story is not so much about the hair-raising task itself as about the legacy of hatred that five years of occupation had left in the hearts of the Danish people, and the beginnings of reawakening to the humanity of the other side.
Hemingway pointed out in For Whom the Bell Tolls that war rarely kills the ones who deserve killing — the fascists who plan the wars, who commit the atrocities, who direct the terror. Instead, it tends to kill innocent young boys caught up in the army, often against their will. That’s the subtext here, that and the struggle between hatred and decency in the victims of so much entirely unmerited horror.
Tony Vaccaro was a combat soldier who took photos throughout the nine months he spent at war, from Normandy to the Elbe. He became a professional after the war, but his shots during the war were not amateur Kodak moments. He set our to make an honest record, then couldn’t bear to look at his negatives for decades. The thing that makes this documentary extraordinary is that it blends his photography on 1944 and 1945 with modern footage, and with commentary from (and footage of) the old man he has become, as long as commentary from various Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalists.
Professional rah-rah patriots probably won’t like either of these films, but real people will.