Land of Mine, Denmark's contender for the best foreign-language Oscar, is set in the 1940s, just after the horrors of World War II. But the film, which explores how a society judges and hates those considered to be enemies of the state, has gained contemporary relevance in the wake of the Trump election.
"I think it's quite shocking that it almost mirrors society at the time," says Land of Mine director Martin Zandvliet. "The film at its core is about not judging and hating people as groups, that we should see each other as individuals, which seems especially pertinent now, after the Trump election. I wish it didn't. I really wish it went the other way. I've basically stopped reading newspapers because I can't believe it. It seems frightening that history repeats itself, that we don't learn anything. How can we be so blind?"
Land of Mine tells the true but almost completely forgotten story of how recently liberated Denmark deployed thousands of German prisoners-of-war to clear the Danish coastline of 1.5 million mines, placed there by the Nazis during their occupation of the country. Most of the soldiers were young; many were teenagers. At least half died performing the task. "It was a war crime, plain and simple," says Zandvliet. "What Denmark did was a war crime."
The film's story centers on Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (played by Roland Moller), a Danish commander in charge of a troop of German mine clearers. Initially, he is a virulent anti-German nationalist and sadistically abuses the boys under his charge. But during the course of the film, Carl grows to empathize with, and care for, "the enemy."
Zandvliet initially had planned to tell the story of the mine clearances from the perspective of the Danish pioneer corps. Only after he visited a cemetery of the war dead and saw how young the Germans who died in the clearances were - "15, 16, 17 years old. Just kids," he remembers - did he shift the film's focus to a brigade of conscripted boy prisoners. Zandvliet's film never glosses over Nazi crimes, but Land of Mine doesn't let the Allies off either.
"At that time, it was allowed to hate Germans because of what happened," says Zandvliet. "Now it seems like it is almost allowed to hate all Muslims because the world is being built on fear.
"I guess what I hope is that the world can change as Carl does in the film," he continues. "We tend to look down and hate whole races and nations and genders instead of looking at each other as individuals. Carl is forced into doing that because he spends time with the 'enemy' and gets to know them as individuals."
Land of Mine certainly has provoked a debate in Denmark about the country's war past. The nation's received history is that it was a noble force whose king refused to deport Jews to Nazi concentration camps and wore a yellow star in protest. "The official story is we were one of the good guys, that we were the helping nation," says Zandvliet. "But, like any other nation, we try to hide the things we've done that we're not very proud of. As filmmakers, I think it's our responsibility to keep telling these stories and reminding people that when we embrace fear and hatred of the other, things don't go well. Using fear is always the easy way to go. But history has taught us that no good will come of it."
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.