A harrowing chapter in Danish history occurred in 1945 after the German occupation of Denmark.
Two thousand German prisoners of war, all teenagers, were forced to clear a beach of 1.5 million landmines planted by the Nazi troops during WWII.
The boys had little training or experience and nearly half died or sustained debilitating injuries in what is considered the worst war crime ever committed by Denmark.
Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine (Under sandet) winner of 25 awards and an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film brings this dark period to light.
A Danish soldier, Sgt. Carl Leopold Rasmussen (played by Roland Møller), is in charge of a small group of POWs; he beats and bullies them, withholds food and drink and stands by as one after the other they’re torn apart in explosions.
Monsters and Critics spoke with Møller, Zandvliet, co-stars Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, twins Oskar and Emil Belton and cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen in Toronto.
Monsters and Critics You’re not at all scary in real life, are you Roland?
Roland Møller: No, I’m a nice and good guy in real life. Ask the twins.
Emil Belton: Yes he’s very nice.
M&C: It’s an amazing transition your character undergoes. All of a sudden, “Oh, he’s sympathetic. Is he turning? No he’s not turning, he’s turning.” The progression was very subtle.
RM: Martin told me that sometimes it’s more powerful if you tone it down. I learned that instead of a guy screaming all the time, if he suddenly speaks silently, then he gets dangerous.
It’s in the small details, if you wink your eye, don’t wink it like this, don’t talk down to the audience because the audience is much cleverer than you think. We talked a lot about that; don’t overdo anything because the audience are not stupid.
It was very good transforming into the character in the uniform. The uniform can tell you a lot. It was too tight and it was actually bothering you a bit but you can feel that he could do these kinds of things which he does all throughout the movie.
You can see that he’s uncomfortable. He becomes uncomfortable with actual being harsh on the boys. So when he said his things he would go, “Oh maybe I overdid it. I’ll go and fix my room now.” I think he used his body a lot.
M&C: There’s a scene in which you’re having lunch alone and looking around to see if anyone is watching you, maybe out of guilt. Why?
RM: For people who are living in a violent world, you’re always uncomfortable. If something’s going on behind your back, it’s a natural reaction. I’ll be really conscious and it’s just a normal thing to do.
M&C: This is a powerful anti-war film that reminds us that soldiers in most wars are all very young. Africa’s child soldiers are kidnapped and forced to fight. It’s this moral abyss. These teenagers are prisoners of war. How do you keep within the moral framework that you want but tell the story?
Martin Zandvliet: It’s a balance because you know that these boys were brainwashed but you also know that they were probably brainwashed into being monsters and maybe they actually did some terrible things before our story starts.
We don’t know but what we see is boys and, whatever happened, it’s not their fault. They didn’t put the mines there. They didn’t start the war, they are a product of the adult’s war, of some crazy man, some crazy adults who wanted to…
M&C: People who went along.
MZ: Yeah and as you see in the aftermath, Carl becomes just this crazy…it’s the eye for an eye mentality that war unfortunately brings to you.
That was also my intention of showing that two wrongs doesn’t make it right, we need to behave better.
Of course they needed to clear the mines, clear the beaches. Who else was going to do it? But you could help a little bit, you give them food, you give things like that.
M&C: Why didn’t they just bomb the beach to smithereens?
MZ: That’s a good question actually but they didn’t and maybe they couldn’t bomb all the beaches. I don’t know whether that would have worked. I never thought about that but they didn’t.
M&C: So it was just revenge making these Germans clear the mines?
MZ: Of course, it’s payback time. You were a small country and at least it makes no reason for stopping it because they’re just like: “Maybe they die, yeah…who cares? Six million Jews just died, so I think actually they deserve it,” which was the mentality that the population had. They [the Germans] had had our country for five years, so I totally understand that.
You understand that people think that way and that’s why it’s happening also now in wars with Guantanamo. You suddenly become a monster yourself.
You forget that this is not the way humans should behave: “I’m angry because they did something wrong.” But that is, I think, why wars keep coming — because everybody is doing something to make the other one step back.
When you glance into the abyss, the abyss also glances into you, but be careful that you don’t become a monster when you fight monsters.
M&C: The film is powerful and provocative and there is a lot of buzz. Are you excited about this opportunity?
Emil Belton: We’re excited about what’s happening and we always dreamed of being actors, but it just kind of happened. They were looking for identical twins and we were just applying to this agency, but just said okay, it would be nice. And then it happened.
M&C: And you look so young, so it hammers home that these are just kids.
RM: I quickly learned that you’re never better than the worst person in the scene. So I could not do my job as good if I didn’t have these wonderful boys to play against.
So it is a team effort and it’s teamwork and I owe these boys a lot of the effort while my character is believable. That’s for sure.
M&C: Mikkel, your character the Commandant is a slice of pure evil. Did you try to make him more human?
Mikkel Boe Følsgaard: No. I’m a bastard.
M&C: How did you get into this dark space, this dark man space?
MF: Well I’m just a psycho, I just flipped. I do a lot of research and try to figure out what this character is about and how he was representing the general feeling of the Danish public at the time against Germans.
Everybody hated the Germans. My late grandmother was a very nice person but he hated the Germans.
So it was quite easy for me to look at all the terrible things that the Germans did and then every character somehow wants to take revenge.
M&C: Yes, there is revenge beaming out of his eyes, that’s right. But also everybody in the town is a woman who is not allowed to give them food. Sorry, not ‘town’, in the little community there. I can’t really remember many films sympathetic towards the Germans.
MF: And all those boys were forced into this, right? They didn’t choose to become Nazis, it was Hitler who was the dictator of this country and forced them into it.
M&C: It’s hard to imagine, I didn’t realize that Denmark suffered so much under the occupation. I did not know that.
Camilla Hjelm Knudsen: Well we didn’t suffer, we didn’t suffer. It’s a little tricky because we were occupied but we also gave the Nazis the keys to the gate and said, “Just go on, we lie down.”
Yeah we built all the landmines. Danish people were making money off the war because they were building all the landmines. We have talked a lot about that in Danish history. Churchill called us the Germans “little canary”.
When the war is ending, the resistance army in Denmark, it was like tripled in the last months of the war in Denmark. Everybody joined it because they can see that the Germans were losing.
I think it’s shown quite good in the movie that they like to survive because they have dreams for the future that they dream about building up Germany again and meeting their mother and becoming bricklayers.
So they have dreams and that’s what keeps them alive I think.
M&C: And once again it’s a terrific anti-war film that I hope people go to see and I think there will be a surprise by how much sympathy we feel to the little boys.
CHK: But also you know it is an adult war. There are so many children in adult wars that they shouldn’t because they don’t grasp what’s going on.