Describing a war film as “visually economical” goes against the expectation of grandeur associated with those stories.
In the case of Martin Zandvliet’s Academy Award-nominated Land of Mine, such a statement is a strong compliment.
Competing in the Best Foreign Language Film category, this stripped-down drama, set against the backdrop of the last days of WWII, has garnered much international acclaim, winning awards at home in Denmark, screening in Sundance’s Spotlight section, three European Film Awards and the World Cinema Audience Award at AFI Fest. The genius underpinning the austere elegance of the film has captivated even those most skeptical about how much one can reframe an overdone historical period.
Digging into an obscure passage of his homeland’s role in the fight against Nazism in Europe, Zandvliet found the right pieces to assemble a storyline that switches the tables between villains and heroes. Once Germany lost the war, Denmark forced young men from the opposite side, now war prisoners, to defuse the incredible number of mines their country had buried along the coast. With extremely low possibilities of surviving, the lives of these German boys became disposable. It was not only a way for the Scandinavian nation to not risk the lives of its own citizens, but to inflict punishment on their attackers—a practice that is morally questionable by any standards.
Land of Mine delivers in tension, great performances by mostly non-actors, and an intelligent observation on patriotism and the hate that emanates from symbols and ideas. Ideally, compassion would reign supreme, but the savage quest for retribution has proven to be one of man’s strongest drives. It’s in the hands of moviemakers like Zandvliet to use drama as a vehicle to spread the idea of self-examination without judgment. Both the director and producer Mikael Christian Rieks chatted with MovieMaker about their utterly successful period piece.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Land of Mine centers around one of those mostly unknown footnotes in world history, one I’m sure most people outside of Denmark have never heard of. Where did your interest in this come from?
Martin Zandvliet (MZ): I wanted to make a movie about one of the dark chapters of our country. Every country has certain stories that they never tell. I knew I wanted to make a movie about us breaking the Geneva Convention by putting POWs into danger and disarming mines. Then, when I started researching I found out that they were boys—many boys. It changed from being about the Geneva Convention to being this story. It was four years of writing and researching about all this stuff. This is an untold story that only a few people knew about.
Mikael Christian Rieks (MCR): Denmark thinks that we were the good Samaritans during the war. All countries share their own patriotism, and Martin was really interested in discovering the holes in that patriotism. It was about finding a human path to deal with this subject matter. When he started researching about this story, immediately we were hooked. It wasn’t easy, because it’s not an easy sale. Finding the story in this very simple setting wasn’t easy: beach, boys and mines. In my opinion what Martin did writing the characters into the story is really powerful and difficult work.
MM: One notion the film handles expertly is the fact that war erases people’s individuality, and a person becomes the embodiment of a country in the eyes of the enemy. The fights become about ideas and symbols or patriotism, and humanity is ignored.
MZ: Definitely. My biggest fear was that this would become a dusty war movie. I wanted to have a contemporary feel to it so that, regardless of what country you are from, you would sit there with some sort of guilt. I wanted to make it so that if you were from Japan, you would feel that guilt about the Chinese or the Koreans, or if you were from America you would that towards the Japanese or the Mexicans. It’s about hate in general. It’s not so much about pointing fingers at our country. It’s about showing the dilemma that happens after something terrible like this. It’s natural to feel hate; it’s natural to want revenge, but, at least in my world, it would be better just to think first and act afterwards. There are better solutions than just revenge.
MM: Portraying the morally complex situation that these characters are faced with without being preachy must be particularly tricky. What was your approach?
MZ: It’s a fine balance. I was also afraid of portraying the Germans as innocent victims. I hate innocent victims. These boys are also cold-blooded killers who probably killed a lot of people, but we should not forget that they were 6 or 7 years old when the war started. They had been brainwashed into thinking that this was right. I fictionalized it a lot. In the real world the sergeant didn’t become a better man, and he didn’t let any Germans run home over the border. They worked until they were done and most of them died. In my world, I want us as humans to be better than that.
MM: You build tension in a very organic manner in a story that doesn’t have much adornments or set pieces. It’s still compelling to watch.
MZ: That was also a difficult part because it’s a very simple story, and from page one of the screenplay it’s decoded straightaway. You know exactly what’s going to happen, as a reader and as an audience. “OK, these boys are going to die.” How do you keep that interesting and exciting? I used a lot of tricks from horror movies. It’s the tension of, “Oh no! Don’t go down the basement.” If you watch the film again, every time somebody talks about their future, they blow up. The rule is never talk about your future [laughs]. I use sound and the environment a lot to create this.
MCR: Martin didn’t want to have a lot of graphic scenes, so there is only one scene where a guy blows his arm up. It’s too much tension and you don’t want to have it in your face all the time. As an audience member you expect the worst, so once you see it once, you have the image; we don’t need to show it again. The feeling of it is there all the time even if you don’t see it, which is what makes it even tenser.
MM: Tell us about casting the right young men to play these soldiers, who are closer to being children than adults.
MZ: It was amazing. Of course, I cheated a little bit because I used Simone Bär, who is Michael Haneke’s casting director. She is tremendous. She is such a bohemian person. She smokes and drinks red wine. It’s very human from the very first meeting. We had a long talk about what kind of boys I wanted. I didn’t want regular boys from Christmas cards. I said I would actually prefer amateurs that hadn’t acted before, so I could shape them. We invited in a lot of boys, and they weren’t told what part they were doing casting for. They had to know all the parts. Then in the room I let the hierarchy open up, and boys immediately took their parts. They sit in the room and some smoke cigarettes, some crack jokes, and the leader immediately emerges. It was very interesting and new for me to do it that way. None of them knew when they were going to die then. At one point I lined them up and said, “You are going to survive. You are going to die.” These boys are teenagers, and teenagers are what teenagers are: they have fun, they drink and they smoke. So when they weren’t doing their job well, I would threaten to blow them up the day after in the story.
MM: Sergeant Carl Rasmussen, played perfectly by Roland Møller, is an intriguing character. Right from the start his unabashed hatred towards the German boys is clear. Why did he need to exude this so strongly?
MZ: I had to build him up like that. He had to come from so much hate. We talked a lot about how many people had the feeling that he was too violent, but I thought he was perfect. I needed him to be that violent. Some people said, “We need to know why he is so violent.” These boys are Germans. That’s enough for me to understand. It’s this thing about hate in general: we accept it, and it’s so scary. You just need to see him breathe and see the people walking by, and you know exactly why.
MM: Mikael, as a producer, what roadblocks did you face when trying to bring this project to fruition? There are elements in the film that are not necessarily obvious or easy choices.
MCR: I tried to [manipulate] the financiers into seeing something that they couldn’t. Martin was focusing on amateurs. Roland Møller, the sergeant, is not a famous actor, which made financing it more difficult. There was no selling. They also all speak German, and as a domestic film in Denmark, that’s a hard sell. Young teenagers being blown-up is another hard sell. The selling points are the fact that this is an untold story, it’s important, and it has humanity. That game of financing I find it quite difficult. The tensest moment was before we were greenlit, when we were just standing and waiting for somebody to jump on. The financiers in this movie are the brave ones.
MM: With a film that is scarce in its artifice and setup, the location becomes crucial, especially because it’s outdoors. Where did you shoot and what was it about that place that made it adequate to tell this story?
MZ: We shot it at the real beach where these happened. We were disarming mines at the real location. It was very difficult for us to get it, because it’s a real military area, and we weren’t allowed to shoot there. But luckily no wars where going on at that point, so the military didn’t have to practice. We got five or six weeks there. It’s the most amazing landscape. There was nothing there, so we built the little hut the girl and her mom sleeps in and the one the boys sleep in. Then over the dunes there was the beach. And we put the barbed wire. We had all the mine maps, so we could actually make it like it looked at that time. We took everything from exact images and basically just started shooting.
MCR: Sand was an issue because of footprints. It would be strange to have them on the field, so every time Martin wanted to do a retake or move the camera, we had someone clean the footprints in the sand.