‘Land of Mine’ director’s challenge: raising empathy for Nazis

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Oskar Bökelmann and Louis Hofmann play young Nazi soldiers in “Land of Mine.” | Sony Pictures Classics

With “Land of Mine,” writer and director Martin Zandvliet has uncovered a piece of his nation’s history, and earned plenty of acclaim in the process.

Zandvliet’s harrowing film, opening Friday at Landmark Century Centre, takes a painfully human look at the Danish army’s use of German POWs to remove landmines from the coastline of Denmark in the aftermath of World War II.“Land of Mine” was nominated for the best foreign language film Academy Award that was won by “The Salesman.”

The director discussed the origins and execution of his film.

Q. How did you become aware of this chapter of history, and when did you realize there was a movie here?

A.Like any other nation, we like to portray ourselves as the good and helping nation, helping the Jews flee to Sweden and stuff like that, so I was looking for a story that hadn’t been told before.And I would say I’m very much interested in history, so a lot of it was also just for personal pleasure, just sitting and looking. And I knew they broke the Geneva Convention by using POWs for clearing the mines, but that wasn’t really enough, in my mind, to make a movie.

But when I found out they used young boys, I suddenly got very interested and thought, “Here is a movie that needs to be told.” And then I walked around the cemeteries and saw how young [they were] and how many of these boys actually got injured and died, and I said to myself, “I need to do this.”

Q.The film asks you as a viewer to show empathy to people who are on the side that isdepicted as the villains in World War II stories. How tricky was that for you as a writer and director, trying to create an empathetic portrait of German POWs in the aftermath of World War II?

A.I definitely did not want to portray them as innocent victims, but on the other hand they were because they were probably 6 or 7 when the war started, so it’s not their war and they were definitely brainwashed into becoming what they are by their parents or by the country.

Martin Zandvliet | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Martin Zandvliet | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

It was a fine balance of not portraying them as too innocent, so I actually gave them horrible backstories, all the boys, what they’ve done, so they could take that with them. … For me, it was also more of how we reacted after the war, what to do with our hate and the dilemma that it put [people] in when you’re not able to get rid of your hate. For a lot of Danes, it was payback time, probably for a lot of countries, and that was the angle for me.

Q. I understand you had some cooperation and involvement with the Royal Danish Army as you were filming on the locations where these events took place. How was it, getting them on board, and how supportive were they of the project?

A.They were extremely supportive. Once we got the permission to actually use the military base, they were there all the time, helping us with everything from the barbed wire to the mines to keeping the tourists awaybecause we shot it in the middle of the summer and that beach is basically still open. Even though it’s a military base, you’re allowed to go in.

So I would say they were very helpful. I mean, Denmark is the kind of country where at least we say freedom of speech and freedom of stories, and all movies are more or less funded by the government but they don’t question whether we criticize the country or criticize the nation itself. They go for the good story. And so they were all very helpful.

Q. What does the Academy Award nomination mean for you as a filmmaker?

A.It means a lot. Of course, there are a lot of things now that take a little bit off the pleasure, but in general it means a lot to me and it means a lot to the movie. … Just to get that mark on it, that it’s an Oscar nominee, I think more people will basically go see it. It’s something that people acknowledge, and for me as a filmmaker, hopefully it’s going to help me with an easier [search for] financing in the future.

Alex Biese, USA TODAY Network

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