Danish director Martin Zandvliet this year received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Land of Mine deals with a part of Danish history that until now has been nothing more than a few tragic paragraphs in history books. The film tells the story of German POW’s sent to dig up landmines with their bare hands. It’s a harrowing look at the horrors of war as young boys, barely men are sent out to risk their lives. Zandvliet grips your attention from the first shots and the tension never lets up as he takes us on this emotional and deadly rollercoaster.
I caught up with Zandvliet just after the Oscars luncheon to talk about Land of Mine and how his love for history helped him uncover the story.
Let’s talk about where you were when you heard about the Oscar nomination
I was at my producer’s office when I heard. I wanted to stay home but we were all very excited once we got there and I went along with my wife and friends. Our movie was the first one they read and I was thrilled. I didn’t hear the other names because I was jumping up and down so I had to go back and see who else had been nominated.
This story is an episode of history that’s nearly untold in history books. Let’s talk about how you found out about this?
I was looking for a story like this because like any other nation, Denmark war a good and helpful nation during the war, but I knew there were some dark chapters. I had always been interested in World War II. I was always looking around in my searches online I discovered pioneer corps who were meant to come and clear the mines, but they didn’t do it. I saw some reports that Germans did it and thereby broke the Geneva Convention, so I did more research into it and found they had used young boys, and it was then that I thought it could be a movie. That’s when it became interesting. I asked around and no one had heard about it. I wondered why no one had written about it, and or ever turned into a movie.
I was going to say, it seems unusual that something as important as this has remained unknown until your film. Why is that?
Maybe it’s because we’re ashamed of it. Or it’s not simply a big enough topic for there to be a book about, but I think it deserves its place in history books. For me, it is about how we treat each other. Don’t we more compassion than our enemies in times of war? The facts are a shock for the Danes, wondering if we really did such things after the war, but that’s what happens. People are filled with hate and they want to payback.
What about getting it off the ground from writing it to getting it financed?
It took me four years to write because there wasn’t much out there. It was difficult for me to write about. Usually, I do other films, but Denmark films are government funded, so it was easy to finance. They don’t question the story and whether you’re critical of society or not. They go for the story, so we were lucky. We are lucky in Europe, it’s not private financing and they don’t think about whether it’s going to be a blockbuster.
That’s the thing about Europe for sure, it’s about the story, not the box office as often takes precedence in Hollywood.
It’s a hard sell when you have 14 young unknown boys and unknown lead. Does it sell well? It was also in German. Some distributors pulled back when they heard that I had chosen Roland Møller for the part but I didn’t care. I just wanted him in the film. It ended up doing quite well and getting some awards recognition, so I was really happy. It’s our responsibility as filmmakers to do what we set out to do and stay focused.
Talking about your casting process for a second. How did you find these actors?
I cheated because I’ve always been a fan of Michael Haneke’s casting director Simone Baer and we had a long conversation about the boys I wanted. I wanted them to represent the different layers of society and unknown faces.
Did anything surprise you at all?
All the boys did. They were so fresh. The twins were new to film and were willing to learn. It was an emotional ride to watch them. They were teenagers and we saw them evolve into men so to speak. We shot chronologically and once we were done with their scenes and sent them home, the boys felt they had lost a friend.
How did your prior experience in post production help you with this film?
It makes it easier when you’re on set because you know exactly what you need to get the scene right. It helps me stay focused on the emotion. I don’t believe in discovering the movie the cutting room even though I worked as an editor. It always helps you to know when you have it and to pull the scene off. It makes me feel safe.
What’s so appealing is the story is so relevant to everything that is going on in Europe and the world at the moment.
We were looking at Europe and borders closing down, and all the politics of sovereignty between Denmark and Sweden and Germany. That’s why he says, “It’s my land,” at the beginning. United Europe was going up in smoke. People now want to shut down ties between Syria and Europe. We’re repeating history. My biggest fear was making a period piece. I didn’t want to make an old war film. I wanted it to be relevant to the society we live in and show that we haven’t learned anything. We still judge people and don’t see each other as individuals. That’s something I thought about a lot.
How has Germany reacted to the film?
I’ve not heard anything from them. Our film was put out by a small distribution company, and they didn’t think Germany was ready for it. I’m sad about that, because it got great reviews in the press but it never really got a chance to expand in cinemas. It was only when the film got nominated that people were surprised that it hadn’t been more widely seen.
It must be gratifying to realize this one of those stories that people will now know because you got your film made and then got an Oscar nomination.
Thank you. I think with the political situation as it is, I think it’s important we don’t forget the past. We have to make sure that we treat each other with respect. We have to make sure it doesn’t evolve into something crazy which it seems it almost already is.