Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
One of the more fulfilling opportunities afforded by The Toronto International Film Festival is the ability to search out smaller films by rising filmmakers that might not otherwise get the platform they deserve. It is all well and fine to hunt down a sound bite from Johnny Depp about “Black Mass," but it often is more edifying for one’s cinematic soul to seek an offering that isn’t quite so pre-sold.
That is how I happened to see “Land of Mine,” an unusual war film about a little-known event directed by Denmark’s Martin Zandvliet. The filmmaker’s previous features—2011’s “A Funny Man,” about Danish comic actor Dirch Passer, and 2009’s “Applause,” a portrait of a middle-aged alcoholic actress featuring a knockout performance by Paprika Steen—have given a slight hint of what he achieves in this fact-based story of how a group of German POWS were forced to remove thousands of land mines that were buried by the Nazis along the Danish coastline after the Allied victory in 1945.
Most World War II dramas focus on the battlefield, but few bother to show the aftermath of such life-shattering events. Zandvliet has chosen to do so on an intimate scale, using as his location one of the very beaches in his homeland where many of the 1.5 million explosive devices were culled and diffused by the now-subdued enemy. At first, we somewhat sympathize with the Army Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller, who makes a lasting impression as the most essential member of the cast) in charge as he bullies his weary German charges and even brutally beats one for daring to have a Danish flag in his possession. The escalating waves of hate that the Danish officer feels in the opening moments hit the viewer with a tsunami-like wallop.
Yet we also see that these POWs are mostly schoolboys, recruited into service at the end of the war so the Nazis could replenish their soldier ranks. Denied regular food and forced to put themselves at risk on a daily basis, these youngsters cling to the promise that once the land-mine job is complete, they can return to Germany. At a certain point, the hard-headed sergeant realizes that his captives are victims of war, too, and can’t help but develop empathy while going against the demands of his sadistic higher-ups.
Seeing such humanism take root in such a relatable fashion is a rarity, one that suggests underneath all our differences including politically and culturally, we are essentially the same. Which may be why “Land of Mine”—a marvelous play on words that works on a couple levels—is one of the 12 titles competing this year for TIFF’s inaugural “Platform” award, and a $25,000 prize, for meeting the criteria of being “bold, innovative and challenging films from mid-career and emerging filmmakers.”
Zandvliet talked to RogerEbert.com after his film’s world premiere, which concluded with a standing ovation.
Have you been to the festival before?
I was first here with a documentary ages ago, in 2001. It is fantastic, this festival.
Your IMDB page doesn’t list your birthdate. How old are you?
I am 44. I was born on the 7th of January 1971. In the countryside.
My husband watches the History Channel a lot and is especially drawn to stories about World War II. But even he did not know about this story of POWs removing land mines. In fact, Denmark rarely comes up in discussions about the war.
No, you don’t hear much about it. And when you do hear about it, you only hear the good stories. How we helped people flee to Sweden. Our country was occupied. And there was a lot of hate afterwards towards the Germans.
How did you find out about this story?
I actually came by it while Googling on the Internet. And then I suddenly clicked on a page. I knew I wanted to do a story about the second World War. My other movies are something completely different. But I also knew that my first two movies are about maybe myself, maybe about my father. But it’s also about acting, it’s about the whole creative world, theaters and stuff like that. So I wanted it to be something completely different. I always wondered why we as a nation always portrayed ourselves as the good and helping, because you knew there were many other kinds of stories out there. So I looked for it and I found out that the Danish government used Germans to clear the mines. They broke the Geneva Convention by doing that.
Are you a history buff?
No, no, I’m not. I’m not an expert. But this topic, I researched it as much as I could. There isn’t a lot written about it. It is a fictionalized script. It’s mostly based on facts, numbers and statistics. Carl, of course, is fiction. He’s the guy who changes and ends up fighting the system.
Usually war films are about battles. Someone wins and that is the end. It was very disturbing to learn about this episode. There are still mines out there. Do people just stumble upon them walking around in this area?
Yes, there are still mines. They swim, they bathe, they walk there. They think they have cleared them all. But on the very day we started shooting, we found a mine. There is a chance that there are still some. But they don’t function anymore. But you still shouldn’t hit it with a hammer.
One of the foreign-language Oscar contenders last year, 'Tangerines,' was about two surviving soldiers – a Chechen and a Georgian -- on different sides of a conflict eventually put aside their hate and forge a common bond. By the end, they are risking their lives for one another. It is somewhat similar to the situation in your film. It’s natural to hate someone who is your enemy during a time of war, but you forget that really we aren’t that different despite our conflicting beliefs. Humans are humans.
That was the purpose of this movie, that the eye-for-an-eye mentality doesn’t work. It doesn’t do anybody any good. It makes us all losers. It will only evolve into more hate. I think that is also what is happening now around the world.
We are used to Germans always being the bad guys. Here, they are little boys you want to hug. That is interesting, too.
They were Nazis. But they were brainwashed Nazis. It was the adults’ war but they were brainwashed. Even the kids in the movie, I gave them all different back stories. You do that as a film director with all your characters. And some of them did some horrible things. Yet, still, they are kids. And the eye-for-an-eye mentality doesn’t work. We should be better. Of course, they should clear the mines. But they could have given them something to eat. Teach them a little bit how a mine worked. Maybe not make it so stressful. Things like that. Was there a reason to force them to walk in the areas where the mines were buried? But definitely they should clear it. It is like the saying, if you are old enough to go to war, you are old enough to clean up. But, in this case, you weren’t really old enough to go to war.
The actor who plays Carl. I don’t think I have seen him in a movie before. He is quite striking.
He’s not a star, but I think he will become a star. He has played in a few films as a supporting actor and this is his first lead. He’s a nice guy, a regular guy. There was a very good atmosphere on the movie. My daughter plays the little girl who lives nearby.
Did the German actors know the story?
No, none of them. Not even the German producer knew it. It’s not a topic that is written about a lot. There is one small book about it. But it is not written by a historian. I am sure there will be books now once you bring it out in the open.
This film, besides being very moving, is also quite nerve-wracking. You know some of these POWs are going to blow up, but you don’t know who or when. Did you put a lot of thought into who was going to get it next and when?
Of course, who dies first and who dies next.
You had to show someone being horribly injured when a mine exploded so we would know what they are facing.
We showed it once. He gets his arm blown off.
You don’t want people only talking about those scenes but more about how Carl is affected by these soldiers.
He changes into what I feel people in general should change into. We should start helping each other out. We aren’t that different after all, once we spend time together. We share the same needs. And all they really want to do is just to go home. When you fight monsters, there is a chance of you becoming a monster yourself. The reason why we used teen-agers here, that is how you get people’s attention. Like all the refugees we have over in Denmark now, the only reason that people are suddenly open-minded and want to help was because of that photo of the dead boy on the beach. That punches us in the face and tells us, OK, we had our eyes closed for too long. We need to do something. That is one of the things that movies can do. They can somehow bring us home to who we were or put us on the path of being the humans we want to be or are supposed to be. Deep down inside, we all have some good stuff.
Your wife, Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, is your cinematographer. So this is a family project with your daughter acting, too.
My wife is very, very good. As a filmmaker, I wanted to get that Cassavetes feeling, where you enjoy being on set. My boy was also there. He was sitting in the director’s chair all along. Roland the lead was playing with him. They just became part of the team. With the teen-agers we tried to keep some distance when Carl is supposed to be really angry. It was scary for them because they are all amateurs. They would ask, “Is he really mad? Or is he just playing?” That is when you know it is working.
The beach in the film really was a minefield.
It was very important to me that we shot at that place because one of the only untouched areas in Denmark, and still has that overwhelming nature. You won’t find tourists walking around there. There are no houses. We had to build the fishing hut and the farm house; make some of the roads.
Your next movie is supposedly “Kursk,” about the sinking of a Russian submarine during a naval exercise in 2000. Robert Rodat, who wrote “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Patriot,” is the screenwriter. Will it be like "Das Boot"?
Now you have seen what kind of filmmaker I am, so it will be my style. That is the way I make movies. I’m in love with characters and faces. "Kursk” is also about people who are trapped underneath water. And you probably know they are going to die, maybe all of them, maybe not.
Do you want to make Hollywood movies or keep working in your country?
I want to do both.
Is there a studio attached to "Kursk" yet?
It is being done through EuropaCorp, Luc Besson’s company. It is both France-based and L.A.-based. It will be an expensive movie. He’s made the “Taken” films, the “Transporter films,” “Lucy.” It is a great success. Normally, they do genre movie, action. This is the choice for something a little more dramatic.
Are you going to get to see any movies here at TIFF?
I would really like to see “Sicario.” Also, “The Lobster.”
What movies have influenced you?
I love Cassavetes, "Raging Bull," "The French Connection." I am a sucker for character. And they don’t necessarily have to be likable. I like when they aren’t likable. All I heard when I was writing is that you have to have sympathy for her or him. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was more about bodies, muscles and breasts than brains. In the ‘60s, it was more about brains and now brains seem to be coming back.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.