No Day at the Beach: Martin Zandvliet’s Oscar-nominated ‘Land of Mine’ recounts a dark World War II episode

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If you were luckless enough to turn 16 in the spring of 1945 in Germany, your days were tragically, almost certainly marked. In the closing months of World War II, when Nazi manpower was dwindling, dying or deserting, innocent teenage males were desperately pitched into the hopeless fray like Fatherland sacrifices.

German actor Bernhard Wicki, who directed the losing side of The Longest Day for Darryl F. Zanuck, came up with a prime war-is-waste example of this with his 1959 film The Bridge. It won ten international awards for Best Foreign Language Film and an Academy Award nomination to that effect, losing the big prize to Black Orpheus.

It told of a decidedly un-magnificent seven, conscripted as teenagers and given a full day’s training for war. Benevolently spared the front lines, they were put to “work” defending their hometown bridge, which was not only of zero military consequence but was slated for demotion the next day to hobble the unstoppable Allied march.

Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet loves The Bridge, remembers it very well and echoes it substantially in his third feature film, Under sandt (Under the Sand).

Retitled (with an ironic upgrade) Land of Mine, this Danish war drama from Sony Pictures Classics picked up 17 international prizes en route to its 2016 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s a lightly fictionalized account of an actual, if little-known, event that Zandvliet stumbled across in researching Denmark’s role in World War II. The film took him four-and-a-half years to write and six-and-a-half weeks to shoot.

The result doubles The Bridge’s number of unseasoned Nazi Youths offered up for sacrifice. It may be Denmark’s highest body count since Hamlet. In 100 relentlessly tense, leadened-with-dread minutes, Zandvliet relays what his country did—in clear violation of the Geneva Convention of 1928. Two thousand German POWs, most of them barely wet behind the ears, were used to sweep Danish beaches free of 2.2 million landmines that the Nazis had planted there to stop a British invasion. It is estimated only half of these minesweepers survived this tall and sadistic order.

“Denmark is no different than any other country,” insists the 46-year-old director. “There are a lot of hidden stories or dark chapters of our nation, and I admit I was kind of looking for that. As a director, you’re always interested in finding those untold stories that nobody heard about. When I started to research and talk to people about it, I started thinking—hoping—there was a film here.” There was, in spades!

The more he delved, the more his eyes widened and he could see the accuracy of the verdict of historians who declared it the worst war crime committed by Denmark.

Unchanged are the facts and stats, but the issue of guilt and responsibility was a bit wobbly so—to lay this squarely at Denmark’s door—Zandvliet invented his central character. Carl Leopold Rasmussen is a Danish sergeant hardened by five years of brutal Nazi occupation, who is put in charge of a minesweeping detail. In reality, such operations were controlled by British forces, with German officers in command of each team of detonators, defusing mines buried in the sand with their bare hands.

The threat of violent death is omnipresent—it never leaves—so what dramatic thrust the film has is in the gradual mellowing of the sergeant, who starts off starving his workers and comes to realize these are just boys trying to fill men’s uniforms. Roland Møller, a no-name that Zandvliet had to fight his producers for to get cast, rewards him with a compelling, compassionate, star-making turn as Carl.

Rather daringly, the director cast his young bomb squad mostly with amateurs. “We did a big casting session, and all these boys came in, not knowing what part they should play. When they were all in a room, a kind of natural hierarchy started. The innocent and the strong gradually made themselves known to us. You could see it.”

Only two of the boys had acted before: Louis Hofmann, who plays the natural leader of the group, and Joel Basman, who plays an explosive malcontent. Hofmann picked up a couple of Best Supporting Actor prizes at festivals, as did Møller for Best Actor.

“Some of the boys spoke a little English, but most of them only spoke German. It’s a totally different kind of generation, these young kids. They’re not stigmatized by the world wars of the previous century. They’re very hopeful, very energetic. It’s the new German generation. That’s actually why I wanted to make this particular movie. I feel it’s so crazy that it’s still—after 70 years—somehow allowed to hate Germans.”

Despite (or maybe because) of the story it tells, Denmark swallowed hard and decided to submit Land of Mine for Oscar consideration. “For me, the message is that we should never forget the past,” Zandvliet declares. “We should always remember what happened and think about how we treat each other. Acknowledge the first feeling that often happens when a society is built on fear or hate, and then think twice before reacting. I feel you have to talk about the past to learn from it.

“Even though I’m pointing fingers at the nation and how we treated the German prisoners, I still feel that the Germans should have disarmed the mines. Who else should do it? I just think we should have treated them better than we did.”

Inevitably, perhaps, Land of Mine bought Zandvliet—along with the raves and the awards—a deluge of hate mail. “I’ve never had that before—letters telling me I wasn’t patriotic enough or I didn’t know anything about the war,” he admits. “That really is not what the movie is about for me. It’s about the dilemma. It’s about what to do, and is this hate a feeling we like, and what exactly do we do with that?”

Zandvliet’s two previous features—Applause (2009) and A Funny Man (2011)—are from another part of the planet, both theatrically based and painfully personal for him. The first concerns a post-rehab actress trying to recover her family and still maintain a career. The story is a bio of the Danish actor and comedian Dirch Passer, and it pursues a similar chaotic course. “Passer’s story is he sacrificed everything to be the funny guy—his life, his family, his health—and chose life on the other side.”

Which plays into Zandvliet’s own personal soap opera. “My father left me when I was three. Those films were about choosing a life away from the family. That’s why I keep my family close to me, even though making movies is a circus life. Still, I choose to have them with me on set always. I’m doing the complete opposite of my father.”

Of course, the family works. He made good on a longstanding promise and wrote a little cameo for his seven-year-old daughter to perform, and he let his six-year-old son sit in the director’s chair and offer advice between shots. Those shots are managed by Mrs. Zandvliet, his director of photography, Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, who won a festival award for her incongruously gorgeous lensing of the historically authentic filmed-where-it-happened locations including in Oksbollejren and areas in Vardi.

How authentic were the locations? “There are still mines there. We found one just before we started shooting.” Which really must have gotten the cast in character!

Next for Zandvliet is his first English-language film, The Outsider, which has already been shot and is in post-production. It stars Kate Cook, Tadanobu Asano, Rory Cochrane and Oscar winner Jared Leto. “It’s about an American who gets stuck after Japan, circa 1954, and joins the yakuza down there. It’s like a Godfather story.”

That was to have been followed by Kursk, about the sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine during a Naval exercise in 2000. Robert Rodat, the Oscar-nominated scripter of Saving Private Ryan, prepared the screenplay, but Zandvliet just decided to swim for shore instead. “I’m not sure what I’ll do next,” he says. “I’m looking for something that has some sort of importance to it, and that’s always difficult to find.”