Whom to Love and Whom to Hate in War and Film? Interview With 'Land of Mine' Director and Cast

Joel Basman and Louis Hofmann (IMDB)

"I have always been drawn to the flip side of the coin. My other two movies are also about the demons, the hate, and the betrayal," says Martin Zandvliet.

Land of Mine

Director: Martin Zandvliet
Cast: Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman
Release date: 2015-12-03 (Denmark)

Martin Zandvliet's Second World War set drama, Land of Mine casts its eye on a forgotten chapter of history, which delivers an unsettling reminder that innocence and morality are bloodied even after the fighting has ceased.

Land of Mine is the story of the relationship between a young group of German prisoners of war and veteran Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) who is tasked with clearing the western coast of Denmark of its two million mines. Planted by the German forces during the occupation these young prisoners of war are promised their freedom and safe return to Germany once they have diffused and removed all two million of the mines.

Zandvliet and his cast craft a piece of filmmaking with a mature historical perspective that refrains from simplifying the morality of its characters. Instead, the film, which is unafraid of asking uncomfortable questions, explores the complexity of human emotion and morality within this tragic chapter of history, where hate and anger, friend and adversary, past and future bleed into one another.

In conversation with PopMatters, Zandvliet and Møller, alongside Joel Basman and Louis Hofmann, two of the young cast-members who play POW’s Helmut Morbach and Sebastian Schumann, reflected on their individual creative aspirations and the beginnings of the film that forged their collaboration. They also discuss the filmmaking process and its ability to create a greater sense of self-awareness, and the difficulty of separating a film from its authors both in front of and behind the camera.

Why a creative career? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Martin Zandvliett (MZ): As a director you don't make a lot of movies, but as an actor, you do a hell of a lot of movies. I might do 15 movies in my lifetime if I'm lucky, and I would like to be proud of all of them -- to look back at my legacy and say: “I chose well; I did something that I felt was important.” And if possible to never sell out and make films for the money. It should be a story that deserves to be told because it gives me something.

Joel Basman (JB): I totally agree with Martin that you want to do movies that you are proud of -- telling a story that you want to tell, not a story that you are forced to. Of course, as an actor, there are some things that you do that you try to forget about, but that's part of the job. This project was something that you did because you wanted to be a part of telling the world a story that people maybe don't know about, or that they haven't seen from this point of view before.

I have never fitted into a normal school nor a working life, and I have been acting since I was 13. I'm now 25 and for me, it was the best way to get to know myself. Of course, that wasn't the thought when I was 13 -- to be free and do what you really want. Right now I can say that I can more or less live from this and it’s nicer than I could have imagined for my life. There is still so much that I want to see and do, but for me, it's the pure satisfaction of doing what you really want. I always had a problem doing things that I didn’t want to do. I don't have a problem when my director says: “Don’t do it like this; I want it like this.” But generally in life, I like to do what I want, and for me the best way is through acting and making films.

Louis Hofmann (LH): I agree with both Martin and Joel, but I think it's also important to not only talk about the work. I have finished school and so it's becoming a real job, and as an actor, you cannot always just play roles. To me, it's important to live, to be who I am and then to get out of that, because when you play a role, it's always a bit of yourself. Okay, you can get some things, but that's why it's so important to gain life experience in order to act -- it’s important to care about this.

Roland Møller (RM): Well it was always there, but I never saw it myself. Way back in school I was not the kind of guy who could sit still, but in drawing class, I had this ability to tell stories. Everybody was always: “Roland tell a story” and I would just improvise one while I was drawing.

I just got into this eight years ago, when a friend of mine said: “Come on, I want to try out for some of these things”, and I suddenly realised that what I do is I don't act a part, I give a piece of myself. Old friends that have known me for a long time, when they saw me in my first movie said: “Roland you are not acting; you are just being yourself.” But I don't think you can deliver a role without putting something of yourself into it, and I just realised that everyday we do a little bit of acting.

When you talk with your mother you are one person; when you go to the bank or you're with your girlfriend you are another person, and that's the way I act. Then for me, it's important that I trust a director and as soon as I do, as soon as I feel comfortable with him, then I pull something out of myself that I didn't even know I had inside of me. That’s what I like about this job. I feel very blessed that I am sitting here right now talking to you because I never saw it coming. People around me saw it, and so I am blessed that they saw something in me.

What was the genesis of the project that led you to this particular post- WWII story?

MZ: It has always been more popular to tell those stories of what a healthy nation we were, and it's no different in Denmark than it is in Britain or America. We like to show these images of us being a helpful nation and I have always been drawn to the flip side of the coin. My other two movies are also about the demons, the hate, and the betrayal. I like to tell those stories and I think they are very important.

So when I started researching I knew that I wanted to do something about the Second World War, and I knew there were a lot of stories. But it surprised me when I found out that we forced Germans to de-mine the beaches and it especially surprised me that we used boys. I like the dilemma the story tells because I would have chosen Germans as well, and I totally understand the hate that Carl (Møller) goes through. But I also think it's important that as humans we change, and we behave the way that we would like others to treat us. After that, the research just started -- finding out how many guys, how many mines.

When you three first read the script, what was the appeal of both the characters and the story?

LH: Well when we first got the script we didn't know which role we were going to be playing, or which role we'd audition for. So the first time I read the script was without focusing on only one character. When you finish reading a script and you realise that you didn't think of anything else, that you were just focusing on the script and were caught up in the story, then that's when I am amazed. I got goosebumps reading a few scenes and I thought that if I already had goosebumps while reading it, how was it going to be in the movie. So I totally wanted to go to the casting, and I was even happier when I got the part of Sebastien.

JB: Let's say you watch a war movie from the Second World War, it's not that hard to see a movie about a concept. It’s not that hard to hate the Nazis and to wish for the Jew to escape and to survive. In this film you don’t know whom to hate and whom to love. But on the other side, you know whom to hate and whom to love, and I think that's what I like here because I don't need a moral. I mean, war is shit -- we all know that. It's not so easy to just say: “That’s the good and that's the bad.” It's much more complex, and after reading the script I didn't care what Martin wanted to do with me, I just wanted to be a part of the movie.

RM: Martin called me he asked if I spoke German. I learned German when I was a little kid from my grandma, and I said: “Yes, I speak German. What do you have in mind?” He told me: “Well I have you in mind for this leading role.” I was quite intimidated because it was the first time I’d had this big responsibility, and I thought: Wow, does he really trust me that much? He told me that I could not say yes to anything else if I wanted to do this, and when I got the script I immediately felt a connection to the story.

Louis Hofmann, Roland Møller

What I find interesting with this character is that there's an evil thing going on inside of him, just like normal human beings, but it’s not the Hollywood stereotype that you see in many Hollywood movies, where the bad are really bad, and the good are really good. Here the fight is inside of him and I can relate to that in my own life. I know that is how people are and I found that very interesting to work with. But also until now, I have only played the villain, and so the big challenge here for me was, could I touch people in this way as well?

I like a good challenge, and I always think that I perform best if challenged. Martin certainly knows how to challenge us, and not only with the kids, the animals, the weather, the water and the sand, but also with the acting itself. At the same time, he gives a lot of space to us, and I feel comfortable in his hands. So I was very happy that I got this role.

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Film by its nature is a vast collaborative enterprise. In past interviews, filmmakers and actors have spoken about how you discover the film as you go along. In the beginning, you don't know what the film is going to be, but rather it takes shape through collaboration of the director and the actors, which is then reshaped in the editing room. Could you discuss how your individual relationships shaped Land of Mine?

MZ: Filming is a process, first the script, the finance, and the producer's script. Then there's the script that you send out to the actors, and then there's the script that evolves on-set. We re-wrote many scenes on the set, as well as came up with new scenes. The moment when the one character picks up the ball with his mouth, we came up with that the evening before. We talked a lot about what we should do and then how it should be done with Roland, and the things with the beetle and the twins were never a big part of the script. They grew on me and so they grew in the movie.

RM: They grew on every one of us.

MZ: What's most important as a director is you should be present. It's not just a script that you need to film. You need to always be ready to change things because it's like when I met the boys and I found out how they would react to the dialogue. Does it even work when they say it? It's a long process and in the editing room, you make a totally new movie.

When I start the edit I always say I throw it all away and I never have a script. I try to imagine that somebody forgot and left behind a hard disk full of material, and I'm lucky enough to go in there and cut the pieces together as well as I can. So I'm not: Oh, it should start like this or because it says this in the script… It doesn't matter! The audience will never know and it's only important to give them the best possible movie.

I think I'm the kind of director who listens a lot. We had a lot of discussions about how to do things and a lot of the time the actors were right more than I was. The director of photography will also say: “Maybe we should do this” and so it is teamwork; I'm not a magician. There is no way I can try to pretend that I don’t oversee it all, but it's a team effort with us all joining forces together the best we can, to try to get the best out of it.

RM: I translated the script, which I think was written in Danish to English, and then into German. Martin didn't have a problem with that at all, and it calmed me because I could then make Carl into my own character. Martin always takes the time to listen, and if there's something that we don't understand, he will take the time to explain it. That makes me comfortable, and so then I'm ready to give something back.

If he gets a crazy idea -- and he gets a lot of crazy ideas -- then I say: “Okay, I'm not going to ask what it's all about, let's do it.” He pushed me a lot and I had a number of scenes where I was screaming really loud, and I didn't have any more anger left in me. I was drained of anger and yet he somehow got me mad again. I had some aspirin and then we did it one more time, and then I had some more aspirin [laughs].

Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you're not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive a transformative aspect to the creative process? (Risker, Paul. Interview with Christoph Behl. FrightFest Gore in the Store, 24 April 2015.)

JB: You shoot this and it always has something of yourself -- sometimes it's more and sometimes it's less. I think after the shooting it depends on who your character is. You definitely learn something about yourself, or you get to know sides that you knew you had, but you had never activated or triggered in a way that allowed you to let them out. Bad and good, all of this is in all of us, and after shooting Land of Mine you definitely changed inside -- changed your view of things, of yourself... But you definitely meet another side or a quarter or ten percent of yourself that you had an idea of, but never really knew about.

LH: That's actually a good example because there's one fight scene between Helmut and Sebastian, it's not in the movie but... [laughs]

JB: You still cry about this.

RM: Come on get it out. Yeah, we are going to talk about this later.

LH: Whatever… We had this fight and Roland pushed me deep into that scene, which helped a lot. After the scene, I had tears streaming down my face. I didn't know why it had happened, but Martin came up to me and said: “Louis, it is because you went to places you have never been before.” And that's so damn true because I have never experienced anything like that. Louis is not the guy who fights people and builds up so much anger within himself -- that's Sebastien. Still, it's Louis who experiences that situation as Sebastien and thank you (to Rolland) for pushing me into that.

RM: I'm proud of you.

LH: But I also appreciate that I experienced something like that, and it’s why I love acting.

RM: You push your limits, and now you know you can do stuff like that.

LH: Yeah.

MZ: I don't believe I change as a person, but there's so much of me in that movie. I chose that he should lie in front of the boys because I'm a liar. I have so much hate in me, but I also have a lot of love. I always try to make sure that if nothing else comes out of it, if it becomes a shitty movie, then at least I would look at it that it was a part of me, and I learned a little bit about who I was in the process. Maybe I do change, but on the other hand, we should give as much as we can to it, and it is not because I suddenly think that I can change the world.

RM: No, I don't think I change, but it definitely makes me aware of some of the things that are inside of me. Actually, because I have played a lot of villains up until now like I told you before, I put something of myself into these roles. So when I see myself on the screen I'm more aware of when I'm like them in real life. I can feel it. That's the character you play; that's the guy you don't want to be. So I'm more in control of it.

I also write a lot, poems and such, and when I look at it the next day, I can analyze what the problem is and find the solution. It's the same when I watch myself on the big screen, but first, my vanity has to go away and so I have to watch it ten times. But when it has gone, and I don't think my nose is too big and everything else, then I start analyzing, and I think it helps me to become a better person.

Land of Mine is distributed in the UK by Thunderbird Releasing, and following its theatrical release will be available on DVD from 9 October 2017.

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