By Jose Solís.
In Land of Mine we see the aftermath of WWII through a previously unexplored lens, that of young German POWs in Denmark, who are sent out to the Danish coast to remove the over two million landmines Germans had left in place believing D-Day would begin on that coast. The German boys work under the supervision of Danish Sergeant Carl Leopold Rasmussen (Roland Møller) who begins seeing them as utterly contemptible beings, but then find himself sympathizing with their pleas. In the film, director Martin Zandvliet asks if we can find the humanity within each other, when we’ve been taught only to see how different we are. The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and it opens in theaters on February 10. I sat down with Zandvliet to talk about the themes in the film, actresses and how his first Oscar season is treating him.
Read the interview after the jump.
JOSE: You started out as an editor, how does this affect the way you direct? I’m thinking in terms of the long shots in the film which somehow still are filled with dread, do you think like an editor when you direct?
MARTIN ZANDVLIET: Totally, I try to make the shots as long as I can, it’s funny you mention I was an editor first, because I feel my edits ruin the emotion. I’d prefer to stay on the person, mind or character as long as possible. I believe in long scenes, in staying with the feeling. In this case I used a lot of thriller elements, there’s a lot of sound too that works well in horror movies, I wanted you to hear the sound of the mines, the flies, the sand. Things like that help a film like this because there’s not much going on, except boys on the sand digging for mines.
Even though there are countless movies about the war, there are still so many horrors that remain unexplored, were you concerned with making a WWII movie in case people thought “great, another WWII movie”?
MARTIN ZANDVLIET: (Laughs) Oh definitely, my biggest fear was to make a dusty old war movie that nobody would see. I’m not particularly fond of just action for action, for me it needed to be more about an untold story and I wanted it to have a link to now. I wanted to make something both WWII survivors, but also young audiences would enjoy. A WWII movie is not an easy sell, people don’t just give you the money for it.
JOSE: When Denmark had the German POWs digging for mines they broke the Geneva Convention. You can never know what the world will be like when your films are released, but I find it perverse that your movie is coming out at a time when Angela Merkel has to explain to the President of the USA what the Geneva Convention is. I find this more terrifying than all the landmines in the movie, because we should know better by now. How do you feel about the movie coming out at this specific moment?
MARTIN ZANDVLIET: When I started it I wanted it to be a commentary on European society, it was supposed to be about the Syrian refugees, about building a wall around Europe, about Denmark becoming fearful instead of open. The more we got into the movie, the world became more scary, so the more the movie became a statement. I’m a little bit in shock about how contemporary and real it is. We’re making the same mistakes again, by hating people in general. Whether it’s Mexicans, or Muslims, we keep judging people for their race and religion, rather than seeing them as individuals. When you put two people together they find they’re not as different as they thought. I think we’re making a terrible mistake by forgetting this was only 70 years ago, it tore the world apart and back then we didn’t have nuclear weapons. We’ve been living in the longest period of time in which Europe has not been at war, but I feel it now, everybody all over the world is scared, I feel it in New York, in Denmark...we need to stop acting out of fear, we need conversation. I’m not saying we should all run around hugging each other, but things are going the wrong way.
The film shows Danish officers doing terrible things to the German soldiers. We rarely see portraits of German soldiers as victims. How much of making the film helped you deal with your identity as a Dane?
Being a Dane myself and having a German sister and brother, and having 70 family members from Holland, helps me not point fingers as the Danes, I point fingers at all of them. I don’t know if it helps me being Dane, I see myself more as European than Danish.
I love the scene with the football match, because it shows both sides becoming friendly for a moment. Why did you want to include this scene?
Every two and four years countries, nations, people who hate each other come together for football, it’s crazy. I knew the film needed a bonding moment, football is one of the greatest things, it brings joy to all, you can have two opposing teams who are enjoying themselves. People have told me this is the scene in the movie where they can breathe.
None of your works seem to have anything in common with each other. I had no idea you directed Applause for instance, which is such a raw portrait of an actor, and I also realized you wrote the suspense film The Model. How do you end up working in so many genres?
The Model I wrote for a friend of mine, so that is written of his terms. I really don’t know though...I’m on a journey of movie making myself, I’m trying to find my way into it. It’s a world that becomes bigger and bigger for me each day. I’m very much in love with characters, Applause and Funny Man are about people on the stage, so basically in this movie I also saw the Germans as being on stage, the beach itself being a stage, I wanted the audience to come experience this story at the beach.
The little girl in the film who’s also putting on shows with her injured doll made me think of Applause. Your family was with you when you shot the film, your wife is your DP, so how did having your children around shape the film?
The little girl is my daughter actually. With the little girl character I wanted to use religion too, and in the movie there is a father story too which is what Applause was, because Paprika Steen played my father in that film. I try to put in a lot of myself in my movies. You can say that Carl kinda becomes the little girl, who is the only one who doesn’t judge others, she doesn’t speak German, she only has the eyes of innocence. I think we all start out innocent, even the German boys did, they didn’t know they were being brainwashed to become something we could hate.
Are you excited about Oscar season? Is it boring or fun for you?
I’ve never had one, so I hope it won’t be boring. Competition is strange when you’re a director, because basically you don’t like it. You focus on your movie and then on the next one. I don’t read reviews, I keep my eyes on the ball. But the Oscar nomination is helping me because it makes it easier for people to finance my films, and it also means more people will go see it because it has the Oscar stamp. It works! I’m thrilled about it, of course with the way things are now it feels odd, but if nothing else we’re going to hear some of the most important political speeches of our lifetime at the Oscars. If I wasn’t part of it, I’d still watch to hear those speeches, those 60 seconds of free speech on stage are so important for any artist.
Considering how astonishing Paprika Steen is in Applause, what other actresses would you like to work with?
There’s a lot. Paprika and I talked about who we wanted to work with, I definitely want to work with Meryl Streep...but I need a story first and then I can go cast the actors.
Land of Mine is in theaters tomorrow.