How 'Land of Mine' Focuses on Denmark's Dark Past

Land of Mine Focuses on Denmark's Dark Past -H 2016
Courtesy of Henrik Petit/Sony Pictures Classics

Martin Zandvliet's drama takes his country to task for its treatment of teen POWs, German prisoners-of-war who were tasked with clearing the Danish coast of 1.5 million mines.

Reliving the horrors of World War II is an old trope among European award contenders, but in Land of Mine, Danish director Martin Zandvliet has found a new angle.

The film explores a corner of the past forgotten by all but the most specialized historians: At the end of the war, recently liberated Denmark deployed thousands of German prisoners-of-war to clear the Danish coast of 1.5 million mines, placed there by the Nazis during their occupation of the country. At least half died performing the task.

Zandvliet initially planned to tell the story of the mine clearances from the perspective of the Danish Pioneer Corps, the men who forced the Germans to scour the beaches for unexploded ordnance. That was until he visited a cemetery of the war dead.

"I was walking between the graves, checking out the dates, and I saw just how young these Germans were who got blown up," he recalls. "Fifteen-, 16-, 17-year-olds. Just kids."

Zandvliet shifted his focus to these teen POWs, a brigade of conscripted boy prisoners under the command of a sadistic Danish sergeant. The result is a tense and gripping anti-war film that questions Denmark's perceived history: that it was a noble nation whose king refused to deport the Jews to Nazi concentration camps and wore a yellow star in protest.

"That's the official story, that Denmark was the helping nation," says Zandvliet. "I think Denmark is like any other nation. We try to hide the things we've done that we're not very proud of. It was a war crime."

While he hopes Europe has learned from the mistakes of its past, Zandvliet, looking at the rise of far-right political parties in Denmark and across the continent, is skeptical.

"Europe is almost based on fear now," he says. "When things are based on fear, you start judging each other, and when you start judging whole nations, it becomes something horrible."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.