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“Land Of Mine” Director On Making A War Movie In The Age Of Trump

“We shouldn’t hate,” warns Martin Pieter Zandvliet, whose World War II drama is nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

“Land Of Mine” Director On Making A War Movie In The Age Of Trump
[Photos: Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics]

Land of Mine is not just another retread of the stuffy World War II drama; it’s a lesson in little-known history. The film reminds us that, in the immediate aftermath of Denmark’s liberation from German occupation, the Danish military commissioned more than 2,000 Nazi POWs to remove 1.5 million live landmines along the Danish coast. By the end, more than half of those German soldiers lost limbs or their lives, closing out a dark chapter in Denmark’s history.

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Gorgeously shot and uncannily expedient with its pointed anti-nationalism message, Land of Mine—now nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film—also pulls off the unenviable feat of inspiring pity for Nazi soldiers, most of whom are only teenagers wishing to go home. Co.Create had a chance to speak with director Martin Pieter Zandvliet, who reveals the challenges of writing a contemporary war movie, his favorite “cheap trick” in cinema, and what lesson he hopes Donald Trump would learn from his film.

Co.Create: Congrats on the Oscar nomination. Are you surprised that people are reacting so positively to the movie?

Martin Pieter Zandvliet: Yes and no. If I look at the 5 movies nominated, it’s the movie that has the most political message. And it’s maybe the one that says more about where society is now, reflecting all the politics and everything that’s going on right now. And of course you’re always surprised as a director when people like your stuff. I only see the mistakes and what I could’ve done better. So I’m very thrilled and very happy.

You mentioned it’s the most political film out of the nominees. Did you intend for that? I’m sure when you were writing, it was at the height of the European refugee crisis. Did that affect the way you wrote the movie?

I definitely tried to make it as contemporary as possible. I made it a comment about what our society was, because there was a lot of talk about putting up borders again, building a wall around Europe. What I didn’t want to do was make a dusty war movie. So I tried my best to make it a comment about today.

Martin Pieter Zandvliet

This was an untold part of Denmark’s history. Why did you choose to highlight it?

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First of all, I was surprised that nobody had told it or written anything about it, that it wasn’t more than just a small chapter in the history books. It’s not like there’s a whole book about it. And then I wanted to do it because Denmark always portrays itself—well, any nation portrays itself—as the good and helping nation. And I wanted to show that we are just as human as anybody else, full of flaws and doing things that we shouldn’t be proud of. This was not our finest moment. We should’ve helped them more and we should’ve treated them better.

Because it portrays Denmark in a less-than-flattering light, was it difficult to get the film made?

Not really. Denmark is a particularly good place for a filmmaker; it’s government funded. I would say they don’t judge whether a movie is critical of society. The consultants who sit there read the story as a story, not so much whether it’s against the nation itself. So I wouldn’t call it difficult.

Louis Hofmann as Sebastian Schumann in Land of Mine

Unlike most World War II movies, the Germans here are not the bad guys—at least, not the way they’re normally portrayed. After all, they’re mostly teenage boys. Did you think that would be difficult for audiences to wrap their heads around?

I knew it was a fine balance of not portraying them as innocent victims. These boys were probably only 6 or 7 when the war started and they had been brainwashed. So just being in their situation, where they’ve been lied to and Hitler left them all by themselves, they didn’t know what to do or what to feel. Are they still convinced that what they were taught was right? Or were they ashamed? And I think the boys were very good in putting on a real act of shame as soon as the first day when we marched down to the beach. It all felt very real.

Since there wasn’t much written on the subject, what sort of research did you have to do?

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It’s mostly based on facts and numbers: how many mines, how many boys, how many injured, and over how long a period of time. But the sergeant [who oversees the German boys] is somewhat fictional. All the things that happen in the movie—the death march, the boys not being fed—that’s all real. But the sergeant as a person is pure fiction. He represents everything in humanity, from the most extreme evil to the good I hope all humans have.

Are the boys fictional as well?

They’re fictional. A lot of their names are taken from real cemeteries, but then I switched them around so the last names don’t match up.

Emil Belton as Ernst Lessner and Zoe Zandvliet as Elisabeth in Land of Mine

For a movie about this subject matter, it’s actually a lot less violent than expected—except for the first explosion out on the beach. Why did you go that route?

Because I think if it really grabs you and it’s intense enough, then that explosion colors the rest of them. It should be more about the emotional journey. I chose not to be too violent, even though I think it is.

One of the most effective parts of the movie was having two of the boys be brothers, as opposed to having them all be strangers. Why did you choose to have two brothers, specifically twins?

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Well, it’s a cheap trick. For example, if you want people to feel sorry for the Syrian refugees and for people to wake up in general, you show a picture of a dead child on a beach. And I couldn’t imagine anything worse than a couple of twins losing one another. So it’s a movie trick. I don’t know if there were actually any twins, but it helps the story.

Why did you decide to have both of them die, rather than having one of them get to go home?

It’s a feeling that I would’ve felt. One twin couldn’t live without his brother, and it just didn’t matter to him anymore. So that’s what I think he would have done: go be with him and not stay behind with all this shame or guilt or whatever they felt.

All the deaths hit hard, especially the first boy. The moment he started talking about wanting to become an engineer back in Germany, you just knew he was going to be the first to go.

Rule one: Don’t talk about your future. I used elements from horror movies and thrillers. It’s the same as whatever you do, don’t go down in the basement.

I was going to say, I was more tense watching Land of Mine than I am watching horror movies. What other elements did you use?

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Thriller movies and horror movies in general use sound a lot. I did, too. Just the sound of how a mine dismantles, or the sound of a stick hitting one, or the clumsiness of digging in the sand…you can almost feel it on your nails and fingers. With just those sounds, it’s totally impossible to know when and who was going to die.

Joel Basman as Helmut Morbach and Louis Hofmann as Sebastian Schumann in Land of Mine[Photo: Henrik Petit, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics ]

Like you said, this is a fictionalized script. Maybe not in details, but in plot. And in a way, it has a happy ending with four of the boys getting to go home. Why did you end it that way?

There was actually a version where they all died, of course. But I couldn’t live with that, without hope for humanity. I also think it would’ve been unbearable. Sometimes, I think we, as people, are more helped by fiction than we are by the truth. But I wanted enough truth in there so we could remember and not forget about the past. I think it’s very important we don’t forget what happened.

So say you got someone like Donald Trump to watch this movie. What lessons would you hope he would take away from it?

That we shouldn’t hate in general. That we should look at each other as individuals and treat each other as humans. And don’t bully.