In the days following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, German POWs in Denmark were put to work by their Allied captors. With minimal training in defusing explosives, they were forced to remove millions of their own landmines from the west coast of Denmark.
Director Martin Zandvliet uses this historical footnote as the entry to a story that involves love, hate, revenge and reconciliation. As a ragged group of German POWs are dropped off by trucks at the seaside, we see that most are only in their teens. There to greet them is the bullish Sergeant Rasmussen. Scornful of the Germans for their brutal five-year occupation of his country, and intent on punishing what’s left of their army, he marches the squad out onto the dunes each day to prod for mines. This seemingly endless task soon starts to look like a bloodletting, and Rasmussen grows conflicted in his feelings toward the young boys.
Land of Mine is Zandvliet’s third feature, following 2009’s Applause and 2011’s A Funny Man, which both screened at the Toronto Film Festival. Produced by Mikael Rieks for Nordisk Film and co-produced by Malte Grunert for Amusement Park Films (DE), Land of Mine world premieres at the Toronto Film Festival (10-20 September) as the opening film of Platform, a new juried programme for auteur cinema.
“I hope it will create some debate in Germany and Denmark but I also tried to make it into a very universal story. Of course in every war, in every country, we have the aftermath of war. It’s important that we learn to forgive and look at each other with love instead – or at least not see everybody as the enemy. That’s very present in the life we live now. Look at Kosovo, Afghanistan, Syria … Who is going to clear those mines?”
“I wanted to create a relevant story and let the audience experience the German POWs’ fear, hope, dreams, friendships and struggle for survival.”
“I am not setting out to assign the blame or point fingers. It is interesting to see a movie that doesn’t look at the Germans as though they were just monsters. It’s ultimately a movie about humans. This is the story of young German boys who were effectively sacrificed. But it takes you on a journey from hate to forgiveness.”
Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine looks at a shocking moment in Danish history that isn’t taught in schools. Even with the epic scale of the film, shot on the vast beaches of the Danish west coast, it’s all about staying loyal to the characters, the director says.
For his third fictional feature, the Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet looks at a little known and morally complex chapter in Danish postwar history, when German POWs, some merely teenagers, were forced to clear two million German landmines – with their bare hands – from the Danish west coast after the Germans evacuated at the end of World War II.
The ambiguities make Land of Mine unlike any other war film. “Like the Americans and the British, we have a certain way of always glorifying ourselves. I have always wondered about ‘the official’ Danish Second World War self-image of being ‘the good, but oppressed nation who did its utmost to help under the circumstances, and sailed so many Jews across to Sweden.’ It rings hollow to me. As if we as a nation, when it comes to our role in the Second World War, exclusively tell the stories of our resistance movement heroes. The Danes collectively repressed their hate of the German occupational forces for five years. I understand that. And this is what is truly interesting,” Zandvliet says.
The story is set in May 1945, but sadly feels timely in 2015. “I hope it will create some debate in Germany and Denmark but I also tried to make it into a very universal story. Of course in every war, in every country, we have the aftermath of war,” the director explains. “It’s important that we learn to forgive and look at each other with love instead – or at least not see everybody as the enemy. That’s very present in the life we live now. Look at Kosovo, Afghanistan, Syria … Who is going to clear those mines?”
“Like the Americans and the British, we have a certain way of always glorifying ourselves.”Martin Zandvliet
Zandvliet’s intention was to expose a story based on historical subject matter that he considers shameful for Denmark as a nation.
“I wanted to create a relevant story and let the audience experience the German POWs’ fear, hope, dreams, friendships and struggle for survival,” he says. “Most historians have so far avoided the subject, perhaps understandably so. I am not setting out to assign the blame or point fingers. It is interesting to see a movie that doesn’t look at the Germans as though they were just monsters. It’s ultimately a movie about humans. This is the story of young German boys who were effectively sacrificed. But it takes you on a journey from hate to forgiveness.”
A Flawed Hero
Martin Zandvliet decided that the focus of his story would be not only on the group of young German boys clearing the beaches, but also on the Danish sergeant assigned to supervise their work, Carl Leopold Rasmussen, who is the film’s main character. Rasmussen is angry from the war but realises having innocent German boys clear landmines isn’t going to be a satisfying retribution.
“I wanted Carl to go through development and change … and see him fighting against the system. Yet it’s not like he’s a hero. He could have done more – much more!” says the director. “He slowly learns that these boys have the same wishes everybody else has: food and love and friendship. These boys were happy that the war ended. They didn’t expect it hadn’t really ended for them – that it had only just started.”
Zandvliet cast Roland Møller to play Sergeant Carl. The actor has experience in films such as Kenneth Kainz’ The Shamer’s Daughter, Michael Noer’s Northwest and Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking, but has never been the leading man on the big screen. “I had seen him in a few movies where he played supporting roles, and I just felt that he brought a whole realness to them,” Zandvliet explains. “I always believe in his characters and in the words he says. I believed in his anger.
“Roland and I talked a lot about how Carl had to be a simple man. He is angry towards the Germans. In the beginning, he visualizes them just as Germans, but eventually he sees them as boys,” the director continues.
The young Germans were mostly amateur actors aged 14 to 19, discovered through Berlin-based casting expert Simone Bär, who has worked with Michael Haneke, among others. For Zandvliet, it was imperative to find a “realness” to them to match the performance the director knew he’d draw from Møller – in particular the twins, two of the younger German boys who have some pivotal scenes. “It was important to me that we hadn’t seen them before, that we believed these boys as being there after the war. I wanted boys we’d feel something for.”
Zandvliet’s Biggest Production
History was still on the ground when the production came to life. The film was shot in a military area on Denmark’s west coast, on the same beach where these mines had been cleared 70 years ago. “The day before we started shooting we actually found a real landmine from that period,” Zandvliet says.
“It was very important to me to get that specific location. It was difficult because it is a military area, and they train there throughout the year. But they have five weeks of vacation, and we were able to get that. We had the military help us there.”
The five-week window meant quick preparation, such as building a suitably weathered farmhouse and fishing hut, in which the German boys live, the day before the shoot began.
Despite the darkness of the story, the mood on set was friendly. “The cast and crew hung around at summerhouses. The World Cup was on, and we’d sit around and watch football at night. Disarm mines during the day and watch football at night,” the director remembers with a smile.
One of the biggest challenges was working on the beaches that were supposed to look deserted even with a film crew walking on them every day. “It really was a challenge with the sand. It’s probably like working in snow. You make footsteps all the time, and we had a team of 100 people walking around. You can’t just say, ‘oh, let’s do it again.’ While I was in the middle of it, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, imagine doing Lawrence of Arabia, that must have been a nightmare!”
With its budget of 4.8 million euros, Land of Mine is Zandvliet’s biggest production to date, after his previous acclaimed features Applause (2009) and A Funny Man (2011).
The epic feel of the story on screen punches far above the weight of the film’s budget. Yet Zandvliet says, “every movie is basically the same. I don’t think about whether it’s more expensive or bigger. It’s really just a film, a story that needs to be told. It’s important for me to focus on the characters and make them believable.”
Keeping the Mood Intimate
Land of Mine was a family affair, with the director’s daughter (age 8 at the time of the shoot) playing the young farm girl, Elizabeth, and his wife Camilla Hjelm Knudsen serving as Director of Photography.
Zandvliet and Hjelm Knudsen previously collaborated on a documentary, Angels of Brooklyn, in 2002. “We always wanted to work together again and now we thought the kids are old enough. It’s that Cassavetes feeling where you can have kids on the set …” Hjelm Knudsen’s recent work includes cinematography for the hit TV show The Legacy.
“I’ve always been in love with faces more than set pieces. I don’t necessarily use an establishing shot. When I cut into the fishing hut, I cut into the close-up. Into the character.”Martin Zandvliet
“When you’ve lived together for 20 years, you have a shorthand,” Zandvliet continues. “You’ve seen the same movies, you know each other’s tastes. But we always talked about the emotions and how we should always be present with the characters.”
Even with the epic scale of some of Land of Mine‘s shots, the director wanted to keep most of the mood intimate with his characters. “I’ve always been in love with faces more than set pieces. I don’t necessarily use an establishing shot. When I cut into the fishing hut, I cut into the close-up. Into the character. I do everything to avoid the sense I’m saying, ‘this is what the fishing hut looks like.’ We’re immediately engaged with the characters, shooting around them all the time. The setting is there, the location is there, but we don’t really focus on showing it except for the big shots.”
There are indeed a few pivotal big shots – such as gorgeous overhead views of the German boys crawling across the beaches to make sure no mines were missed. The beauty of the landscapes is in juxtaposition with the hell the young boys were going through.
Zandvliet also thought carefully about how much carnage to show on screen. He had to show enough blood to make it hit home, but not so many scenes of arms exploding that the audience got numb to the violence. “From the very first draft of the script it was probably more horrible and horrifying, but then I toned it down eventually.” Still, there are emotional horrors – such as one dying boy wailing for his mother.
Zandvliet has several new projects lined up including a sub salvage drama for EuropaCorp, Kursk, scripted by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) and based on the true story of a multi-national rescue attempt of the sunken K-141 Kursk, a Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine that experienced a series of sudden explosions. Rodat is writing the script based on Robert Moore’s book A Time To Die. Zandvliet will also direct Noomi Rapace in The Great Americans, another US-set project.
But whatever the project, all levels of work come back to the same guiding principle of relatable human stories.
“Even with more money involved, at the end of the day, it’s watching a story through a character’s eyes,” says Zandvliet.
Land of Mine, selected as the opening film of Platform, the Toronto Film Festival’s new competition programme for auteur cinema, is produced by Mikael Rieks for Nordisk Film and co-produced by Malte Grunert for Amusement Park Films (DE).
Writer-director. Born 1971, Denmark. Zandvliet started out as an editor, working on documentaries for various directors. Zandvliet’s first film as a director, the documentary Angels of Brooklyn (2002), was selected for a number of festivals, including Toronto and Nyon.
He has also co-written Mads Matthiesen’s two features Teddy Bear (2012, winner at Sundance) and The Model (2015).
Zandvliet’s debut feature Applause (2009) received numerous awards. The film was selected for the Toronto Film Festival, as was Zandvliet’s second feature, A Funny Man (2011), which also enjoyed huge domestic success with a total of ten Robert and Bodil awards, Denmark’s highest film distinctions, and was the number one Danish box-office hit of the year.
Land of Mine, Zandvliet’s third feature film, makes its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, selected as the opening film of the festival’s new auteur competition, Platform.