It’s a little-known slice of World War II history, taking place days after the end of the war in May 1945 when a group of German prisoners of war were brought to Denmark and forced to disarm two million land mines scattered along the coast by German occupying forces. Many of those prisoners were barely adults, children of the war forced to clear up after their fathers, some 900 of them killed while trying to defuse the mines.
After uncovering this dark era in Denmark’s history, Danish director, Martin Zandvliet, felt compelled to tell his country’s grim legacy, creating a story about a Danish sergeant who believes he hates his German enemies only to find his steely heart melting as his young prisoners of war lose life and limbs.
Working with his cinematographer wife Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, the results are somberly beautiful and difficult to watch at times, earning him Hollywood respect and a future role helming big-budget biopic Kursk, based on the 2000 K-141 Kursk submarine disaster.
How did you discover this relatively unknown slice of World War II history?
“I discovered it through research and learned how this happened in Norway and throughout the whole coast down to Europe. I wanted to tell a story about the more dark chapter of Danish history. Usually we always portray ourselves as the nation of helping the Jews flee to Sweden. But, there was a lot of things about Denmark that is very interesting because it’s also a very complex country. Basically it’s an untold story but I thought it was important because it also shows the dilemma of what happens after war and how cruel war is.
Do you have grandparents who served in World War II?
“My grandfather was in the war on the Danish side but it really didn’t have anything to do with that. Actually my mum and dad got divorced when I was very little so I have a German brother and sister and they were my greatest influences, simply because of a moment in my youth when we were out one day as a family and people actually starting hollering to them and I thought, ‘Okay this is crazy. Three generations after? This has got to stop.’ They have nothing to do with this and they are innocent. That’s also why I focused in on the children because these boys were innocent in my point of view. It’s an adult’s war.”
The beautiful countryside seems at odds with Land Of Mine’s brutal themes?
“That was deliberate. I wanted this realistic drama to be set in an idyllic, beautiful universe marred by rough concrete bunkers and daily land mine detonations. Summer, sand, dunes, warm weather and water were a constant reminder of the idyllic life that once was, and life that would once more rise out of the ashes. Along with thousands of mines, explosions, death and sorrow, these elements hold us in clutch of the aftermath of war.”
You use many amateur actors for the roles of the children in Land Of Mine. Was that a budgetary consideration or was it more about portraying an innocence that perhaps a trained actor couldn’t?
“No, that’s a deliberate choice. I wanted to have boys that weren’t really known but they’re not all amateurs. Louis Hofmann who plays Sebastian is an actor and has already been in a few things. But the rest of the boys are amateurs. The twins I would say are the less experienced ones. They’ve never been in anything at all.”
The film is so brutal and graphic. While you were filming those scenes, how did the kids respond to that – and also yourself as their director?
“I’m very brutal! But I also wanted to be brutal because this really happened. I remember sitting with the producers during the dailies, and them going, ‘Wow. Shit. Is this okay? Are you okay?’ But I think if you want to make a scene good it has to feel right there and then. I don’t believe in actually editing a scene. It needs to feel and you need to have the tension there. Of course it was tough but when the scene is done you laugh and afterwards you have coffee. It is tough and I also think the boys thought it was tough. You know, they weren’t looking forward to the scenes.
But it also plays out like a thriller somehow?
“In my mind, I wanted to make it like a theatre play on the beach but I also wanted to make a thriller and make it exciting. When you actually shoot it, it’s just sand. It’s just the DOP and the actors but you have to build up the tension and that’s why it was also so important that we did it on the beach where it actually happened.”
There are still some mines there, right?
Your films A Funny Man and Applause have already brought you success and yet you are a self-taught director. How did this process begin for you and was there another career before you got into this?
“Yeah, I used to be a bricklayer. When I was 15 until I was 18 I worked as a bricklayer and then I actually wanted to be a professional surfer.”
Were you successful as a surfer?
“No, but I was in competitions and stuff. But, eventually I found out no, I’m never going to be able to live off of this. I need to find something else. Then I started filming the surf competitions and that evolved into editing and that evolved into writing and that evolved into directing.”
How did you arrive upon the emotional transformation of Roland Moller’s Sergeant Carl?
“Well we talk a lot about his character. We talk a lot about what the movie is about and then we talk a lot about how the most important thing is that we believe his change. It’s very easy to play Dr. Evil. But then you actually start to believe the change in the tide of his emotions and what he goes through.”
Do you think it’s actually possible to hate the enemy as much as Sergeant Carl does at the outset of the film?
“I think so. I think it’s definitely possible to hate that much. That is clear.”
How do you explain his emotional transformation?
“I believe if you spend enough time with people, that’s the whole main factor here. When you don’t spend time together, you don’t get to know each other, but when you spend time together you find out very quickly that you have the same needs, the same wants for love and affection and you laugh at the same things. I’m a strong believer in changing. I also change myself. I think in life, our responsibility is to evolve into better human beings, fathers, mothers, better listeners.”
And your wife is the cinematographer and your daughter has a small role in the film. Does that help because there’s a shorthand or are there times when you kind of hold back and don’t say what you want to say?
“Oh no, no, no, no! We are very honest with each other. We also do fight on set but it’s more the killing eyes and the silent glares. But you do that with every DOP because you have to keep it professional. We don’t take our personal life onto the set.”
So she’s the best person for the job?
“Yes. I very much enjoy working with her. She’s got excellent taste and she’s got a fantastic eye for cinematography plus she’s in love with faces as I am as well. We were both heavily influenced by the look of films from the 1960s. It was about creating the right mix of poetry and darkness.”
Which war directors or war films inspired you?
“The Bridge On The River Kwai was a very fantastic movie. Saving Private Ryan was good too and also Apocalypse Now. But I’m not that much into war movies really. My favourite movies are movies from the ‘60s. Mostly I like character-driven movies. I’m not really a guy who sits and watches war movies unless they have a really strong story or really strong characters.”
It’s incredible that this story is actually based on fact, that they actually used kids to detonate the land mines. Why didn’t they use adults?
“It was kids and adults but there were a lot of kids because half the grown-ups were dead so they didn’t really have much choice. After the war was over, out of the German soldiers that remained, half of them were under 18.”
It seems like it must have gone against the laws of the Geneva Convention to use kids in this manner?
“Yes, but that happens in every war. You can take every war throughout history and they break the Geneva Convention. I would also say that every other country would have used Germans. Even I would have used Germans. Who else should do it? But, that’s not the point. It’s the how you do it. They also did a little trick because they made them volunteers so they were not prisoners of war. Prisoners of war have rights but volunteers don’t have rights. They did that in a lot of places around Europe where instead of calling them POWs they changed their status into voluntary hostile personnel and then they were free of the Geneva Convention.”
How do you think Land Of Mine will appeal to global audiences because there’s not many World War II movies where the Germans are the victims?
“I think it will go quite big. Actually the only country I’m a little bit in doubt about is Germany. I think the rest of the world will take it in but Germany still has some sort of guilt.”
What about in your own country of Denmark? How do you think this will be received?
“When you see this movie and, after five minutes, you’re still thinking about the Germans as the bad guy, you will quickly forget this because basically it takes people into an emotional rollercoaster. I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be a very big movie in Denmark because it’s a good movie – you cannot say that it’s a bad movie. So okay we have a good movie, then you can say, ‘I don’t want to see a story about this.’ Then you have to ask yourself why don’t you want to see it?”
So Hollywood is beckoning now after Land Of Mine. Any plans to move to the U.S.?
“I think my focus should be on the project and the ball, so to speak, and wherever it leads you. But, I’m Danish. I will always live in Denmark. My kids go to school there.”
Land Of Mine will screen at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. For session and ticketing information for Land Of Mine, head to The Sydney Film Festival.