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How ‘Land of Mine’ Dug Into a Dark Corner of Danish History and Landed an Oscar Nomination

Filmmaker Martin Zandvliet used documentary techniques to tell the true World War II horror story of forcing German boys to defuse land mines with their bare hands.

“Land of Mine”

Sony Pictures Classics

World War II is a well-trod genre. Finding a new way in was the challenge for Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet (“Applause”). The result was “Land of Mine,” a well-reviewed but controversial box office hit in Scandinavia and Europe that scored three European Film Awards on the way to a coveted Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film.

“It’s an amazing year for world cinema,” said Zandvliet, who also edits documentaries. “And you never know what to expect in terms of awards … Unfortunately this small, local story feels more global and more relevant than ever.”

At the end of the war in 1945, more than 2,000 German POWs were forced to remove over 1.5 million land mines from the west coast of Denmark. “Land of Mine” follows a hard-nosed Sergeant (Roland Møller), who after five years of brutal occupation by Germany, commands a troop of German POWs, some as young as 13, to use their bare hands to defuse land mines buried in beach sand. For every 5,000 defused mines, one soldier was killed.

The story began when Zandvliet started digging into the ways that Denmark broke the Geneva Convention. “I was looking for the dark chapters of our country,” he said in a phone interview. “Every country has its own demons that no one wants to let out, even in Denmark. This was a long process to research. I walked around a cemetery looking for the German names, then suddenly I saw that the Germans were very young. Slowly, it was about the boys.”

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Zandvliet fictionalized this true story, balancing dramatic tricks with facts and numbers. “We know how many mines there were, and who died,” he said. “It’s all recorded. It was a dangerous job. In the beginning many of the POWs didn’t get food, lived in terrible places.”

The fictionalized character is the sergeant who at first starves the young boys and treats them harshly, but eventually finds his humanity and comes to care for them. “That is me,” said Zandvliet. “No boys were sent home. This is how I want the world to look. I would have saved a couple of boys. The sergeant really represents all the sergeants on the west coast, where some were evil and some good. The death march walking over mines, that happened. Some villagers came to watch it like a picnic.”

“Land of Mine”

Sony Pictures Classics

Denmark and Germany have been at odds through most of their history, as Germany took over more and more Scandinavian territory. “Denmark is a hard tactical country,” said Zanvliet. “We don’t care who is kicking on our door. Whether it’s Bush, Obama, Trump or Hitler, we shake hands. It seems our country doesn’t care; it’s so small we could be wiped out in a heartbeat.”

“Land of Mine,” shot mostly in German, kicked up controversy. “Even though I say I’m not pointing fingers at the Danes,” admitted Zanvliet, “I know I am. I’m getting my dirty hate mails. There was a big debate after this movie in the media and TV, where everybody called me not patriotic enough. It’s not about that. It’s more the dilemma of the terrible things that happen after a war. This happens in any country: Japan, China. It’s everywhere. Bombing Syria — it doesn’t help anything. It’s our responsibility to make sure we don’t become the monsters we fight, to treat each other well. It’s human nature to want revenge after something terrible happens. Hate comes out. I’m not saying hugs will save the world, but you do need to stop and think about your reaction. Is it the best one?”

The director had to fight the distributor to be able to use self-taught actor and supporting player Møller in his first lead role. “Land of Mine” made him a star. “Now he pulls in money,” said Zandvliet, “and they are very happy.”

The film’s dramatic location is the gorgeous long stretch of Denmark’s west coast. For five weeks, the production took over an old military base with a piece of unspoiled beach. “We did everything we could to make it look like a wild picture of nature,” said the director, who works with his wife, cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, using handheld cameras. “We put up barbed wire to keep tourists away.”

The movie nabbed great reviews and strong box office around the world — except for Germany. “I’m a little disappointed,” said Zandvliet. “I’m one of the first ones to make humans out of the monsters. They’re still ashamed. They are not ready for that.”

Next up: English and Japanese-language Netflix film “The Outsider” starring Jared Leto as an American veteran in ’60s Japan with PTSD. “He’s lost in his own shame, and tries to find his way back,” said Zandvliet. “As long as Netflix puts it in cinemas, then I’m happy.”

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