Under sandet

Denmark, Germany


Few films detail the immediate aftermath of conflict and occupation from the Second World War. After six years of war and terror the lines between right and wrong had been eradicated. LAND OF MINE exposes the previously hidden story of Denmark’s darkest hour. In the days following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, German POWs held in Denmark were put to work by the Allied Forces. With minimal or no training in defusing explosives, they were sent to remove in excess of two million of their own landmines from the Danish west coast. During this process, more than half of them were killed or severely wounded. Zandvliet sheds light on this historical tragedy as the entry point to a story that involves love, hate, revenge and reconciliation.

These young German POWs Sebastian, Helmut, Ludwig, twins Ernst and Werner, and Wilhelm have confusion, fear and defeat in their eyes. Scornful of the Germans for their five-year occupation of his country, and with the intent on punishing what is left of the Nazi regime, the bullish Sergeant Rasmussen marches his squad out on the dunes each day to prod for mines. This seemingly endless task quickly becomes carnage; and even Rasmussen grows conflicted in his feelings and intent toward his young prisoners.

LAND OF MINE is about the aftermath of war; but more so, about humanity. Zandvliet finds equally compelling material for his tale of comradeship, survival, and unexpected friendships. It questions the existence of the inherent evil that could exist in us all. But is it ever possible to show sympathy for those who represented the Nazi terror?

Director's Statement

My intention was to reveal a story based on a historical subject matter that is rather shameful for Denmark. Most historians have so far avoided the subject, perhaps understandably so.

I was not assigning blame or pointing fingers; it was just interesting to make a movie that doesn't always look at the Germans like monsters. It’s the story of a military truck filled with young German boys, who were sacrificed in the aftermath of the Second World War. However, in the end, it is really just a movie about humans. It takes you on a journey from hate to forgiveness. My intention was to create a relevant story and let the audience experience the power of fear, hope, dreams, friendships and the struggle for survival through this handful of characters.

The British offer of German POWs for demining operations placed the Danish government in a political dilemma. Declining the offer would have been a very unpopular decision both in the eyes of the Danish public and the surrounding allied nations. Denmark as a nation still had a somewhat blemished reputation following the war. And the British were the unspoiled heroes – the liberators of Denmark. Nevertheless, by going along with forcing young German POWs to demine the Danish coastline, it could be argued that Denmark committed a war crime.

I wanted this realistic drama to be set in an idyllic, beautiful universe distraught by rough concrete bunkers and daily mine detonations. The summer, the sand, the dunes, the warm weather and the water were a constant reminder of the idyllic life that once was, and the life that would once more rise out of the ashes. Along with the thousands of mines, explosions, death and sorrow, these elements hold us in the clutch of the aftermath war.

Working with my wife, cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, who shot the film, we were heavily influenced by the look of films from the 60s. It was about creating the right mix of poetry and darkness. The setting needed to be as beautiful as possible to cope with the horror you are also watching unfold on screen.
Most of the film takes place in daylight in contrast to the darkness shown through our characters. I am inspired by people such as David and Albert Maysels. The way the Maysels brothers filmed their subjects was so vulnerable and sensuous that you could not help feeling the presence of their characters. It is a beautiful and rare thing when that happens. Intellectual analysis never kicks in. This only happens when you are fully engaged with the human beings you are watching and in the feeling of the scene.
The idea was to create a sense of life. Not that I wanted the camera to draw attention to itself, but I did want the audience to constantly be able to follow the actors. Characters have always interested me more than plot.

We were lucky enough to have amazing casting directors who helped us avoid an 'actors look'. We cast all the boys for all the roles - no one knew which role they got and were selected for. I chose the ones that I felt were the most natural for the roles. These boys were new actors, amateurs if you will. The nice thing about that is you can model and mould them to what you need, craft their performance to what you are looking for. This was even the case for the male lead role as it was Roland’s first lead role in a film.

A general consensus exists among filmmakers that people have to be beautiful, in a sense where beauty means having no flaws. But I have always thought that each human being is most interesting, when you can see the human being’s history. It is okay to know somebody’s angst, see his scars and feel his demons. I was not looking to simply display a lot of ugliness, but I do think that the ugliness tells us more about who we are as human beings than anything else.

It is a very humane film that not only explores the beauty of darkness, but also tries to find out who these German boys were. We share their hopes and pray for their continued survival through this nightmare. We must believe that they once more can become human beings even though we disapprove of the violent regime of which they were a part. In a way we ask the question: Is it even possible to show sympathy for individuals who represent the terror of the Nazi regime?

They say that a great drama largely depends on the magnitude of the bad guy. As far as I am concerned, it is therefore the man who forces them to their deaths who is the true representative of the film and of the hate. Along with the boys, we therefore follow their keeper, the sergeant Carl. For Carl, the monsters transform into human beings.

For me, LAND OF MINE tells an important and humane story, which is a largely unknown story to the majority of Danes. It has been kept out of sight. Conveniently forgotten. Repressed. It is a film about revenge and forgiveness. About a group of boys forced to do penance on the behalf of an entire nation.

Director's Biography

Martin Pieter Zandvliet was born 7 January 1971, in Fredericia, Denmark. As a Danish director and screenwriter, he is mostly known for his films A FUNNY MAN (2011, Toronto FF) and APPLAUSE (2009, Karlovy Vary IFF). Martin Zandvliet, started his career as an editor, has also directed some shorts and documentaries, including the awarded ANGELS OF BROOKLYN (2002).

2016 – THE MODEL, as screenwriter
2011 – A FUNNY MAN
2008 – MON PETIT, short
2005 – JEG SOM REGEL, short
2004 – MY POLISH FATHER, doc., as editor
2003 – ROCKET BROTHERS, doc., as editor

Cast & Crew

Directed by: Martin Zandvliet

Written by: Martin Zandvliet

Produced by: Mikael Rieks, Malte Grunert

Cinematography: Camilla Hjelm Knudsen

Editing: Per Sandholt, Molly Malene Stensgaard

Production Design: Gitte Malling

Costume Design: Stefanie Bieker

Make-Up & Hair: Barbara Kreuzer

Original Score: Sune Martin

Sound Design: Rasmus Winther Jensen

Main Cast: Joel Basman (Helmuth Morbach), Mikkel Boe Følsgaard (Lt. Ebbe Jensen), Emil Belton (Ernst Lessner), Oskar Belton (Werner Lessner), Roland Møller (Carl Leopold Rasmussen), Louis Hofmann (Sebastian Schumann)

Nominations and Awards

  • European Cinematographer – Prix Carlo Di Palma 2016
  • European Costume Designer 2016
  • European Make-Up & Hair Artist 2016
  • Feature Film Selection 2016