Roland Moeller in "Land of Mine"

Martin Zandvliet had been walking with his brother and sister on the streets of Copenhagen when some of his fellow Danes suspected his siblings’ German ancestry and harassed them with the Nazi salute. Zandvliet, not far removed at the time from his celebrated 2009 narrative feature debut “Applause,” was unsettled enough to start thinking about a way to address the fissures that still exist between European nations following World War II, but to do so he realized he needed to go back in time, discovering a virtually unknown chapter in Denmark’s history.

With “Land of Mine,” Zandvliet discovers the fascinating story of young German POWs, most of whom were no more than early teens, who were forced to defuse the millions of mines that were set along Denmark’s West Coast. Yet in paralleling their plight to that of the steely Danish army sergeant (“A Hijacking”’s Roland Møller, in a ferocious performance) who the boys are assigned to, Zandvliet once again shows his sympathetic and light touch with those who often dismissed as the other, creating a tense thriller where the explosives in the ground are the element in the film least given to detonation.

Working on his biggest scale film to date, Zandvliet doesn’t pull any punches in depicting the tragic subjugation of the boys who were sent to fight in a war they couldn’t possibly have understood, promised that if they can diffuse six mines a day, they’ll be freed in six months. But he garners compassion for all sides, watching as the sergeant hardened by war is eventually worn down by what he sees in front of him as a moral wrong. Handsomely mounted and beautifully attuned to the natural beach environment it takes place on, it is a step forward for the writer/director that nonetheless keeps his humanity upfront.

Shortly after “Land of Mine” premiered in Toronto, Zandvliet spoke of how he was able to track down this obscure piece of history, why he’ll probably resist shooting on sand again and the contemporary parallels that helped shape the film.

Martin Zandvliet's "Land of Mine"After your experience on the street with your siblings, how did you decide this was the story to tell?

There’s a lot of stories in Denmark and all over the world about how people treat each other after a war. I started Googling about something called the Danish Pioneers, who were supposed to clear the mines. I actually thought that they did because I’m very interested in war, but then I found out that they actually brought up the Germans instead of doing it themselves. Then I started researching towards that.

You mentioned that there was very little information out there at the Q & A after the premiere screening, but there was a book about it. What was it?

It’s one of those books where it’s not written by a historian and not objective in any way, but it tells us all the things – that we broke the Geneva Convention, how many people were there, and stuff like that. I also went out and researched at cemeteries and hospitals, trying to find out how many Germans were there, [especially] how many young Germans were there, by walking around those cemeteries looking at dates and years.

Did the current situation in Europe in terms of the treatment of refugees influence the film?

I’ve been writing this for four years, so in the beginning, it didn’t. But I think it’s important that we as humans learn the “an eye for an eye” mentality doesn’t work. We need to be open-minded. We need to let go of the hate and the fear of the things we fear the most. I think this specific story relates to how we react towards the Syrian refugees now because it’s a dark chapter of the Danish history. If we’re not very careful about the way we treat people now, it will be another dark chapter, and I would like to be proud of my country and not be ashamed of its actions.

I think it’s important that we open our borders. [The film title] says “Land of Mine” – this is my country, and this is what I think is happening in the whole world. We’re so afraid of letting go of our values, but what are our values? Is it houses? Is it money? Is it jobs? If you’re unemployed, is it that somebody could come in and they’ll take your job? It’s all fear of wealth – basically capitalism. We should be open. The world is one place, and we all own it.

Was it difficult to get support from Denmark when the film shines a light on some dark behavior from the past?

No, not really. We were very lucky in Denmark in that way. We have the government supporting [the film], and because of my last movie, they believe in me, so I can take it further than maybe other people can. The Danish Film Institute doesn’t question whether [a film’s subject] is particularly nice to our country. They go for the good story.

This is bigger in scale than your previous two films, yet as you’ve said, it’s a fairly simple story at its core. Did it feel any different?

When I first started shooting, I thought, “Okay, this is going to be easy. It’s one location. But once you get out there on the sand, you find out that sand is so much more complicated than anything else. Boys are boys – that wasn’t challenging for me, though normally people say, “Oh, you can’t…amateurs, boys, and animals,” it’s just one day at a time. But the sand took me by surprise because when you’ve done a scene there are a thousand footsteps all over or when you dig up a mine, you need to make it look like we have never been there to do it again. That caught me a little bit by surprise. In the beginning, I thought, “Okay, this is going to be great. One location. There’s going to be plenty of time for me to be directing,” but quickly found out I’d rather have had 80 locations.

I also had less shooting days – I shot it in six-and-a-half weeks. It was a tough movie to make, and I definitely wanted to do something bigger – I was looking for production value. However, I was looking to make it grandiose but still with the characters alive – their faces in there with the sound touching us.

You actually went so far as to get Michael Haneke’s casting director to get young men who don’t look like they’re actors…

Well, he’s one of my big heroes. You can call it cheating, or you can call it inspiration, but I heard a lot about Simone Bär and she has very good taste. She would look for boys in places that other casting [people] wouldn’t do – they street cast and look for boys that haven’t done anything before. Usually, in the film business, you have these lists and the same ones go around to all production companies. It’s always the same people. From the beginning, I [said], “I don’t want to see those lists.” I want to see faces I believe in, so when we see them in the truck for the first time, I want to feel that this is a new face that I need to get to know. I need to be on his journey, not being colored by anything else.

Roland Moeller in "Land of Mine"You create a very clever backbone for the film’s story by casting a pair of twins since while most of these boys don’t know each other well, there’s at least two who are looking out for each other. How did that become a part of the story?

Of course, that’s fiction. You can call it a cheap trick. It’s the same with the dog [that’s the sergeant’s pet], but it’s there because to lose somebody so close to you is the toughest thing to watch. With twins, one is always stronger, or at least, they’re always fighting, “Who is the strongest one?” And the trick was does the weak one become the strong one? It was a very interesting thing, I think.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when one of the boys is trying to warn another on the other side of the beach about the mines and when you change sides, you can hear the sound of the ocean overtake the voice of the boy who’s trying to get the other’s attention before he hits a mine. Did coming from a post-production background in editing as you do help you figure out to execute something like that so effectively?

Normally, I don’t storyboard, but that one I did. It is a difficult scene to do because when you do an explosion, somehow all eyes are on the explosion, so you tend to forget that the real thing – the tension, the acting and the story – that’s happening is away from the explosion. The whole team was more interested in getting the explosion to be right, and you do three or four explosions at the same location, so it’s all focused on that and I have to remind myself that it’s not really the explosion that is important. It’s the thing before it, and the thing after. I did it in one take. I didn’t just do one explosion, I let the scene play and shoot the before and after, so it explodes, and it’s not CGI or effects. It’s real powder explosions, though not real [in a dangerous way] – you can actually sit on it.

The other night you said you found a real mine on set. What was that day like?

It’s a good story, but we knew there’s still mines over there, even though they try to find them all the time.

It’s interesting to hear you don’t storyboard because you’re married to your cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen. Do you actually start talking about the film in a visual way quite early in the process?

From the very beginning. We sleep in the same bed, so we talk about the shots all the time. For me, it’s always the faces. I don’t storyboard because when you’re [shooting] exteriors and you don’t use artificial light, you don’t want to be locked [into something]. You cannot control the light. It’s the sun, and you never know whether there is going to be good weather or bad weather, so you should always be aware of where’s the light coming from and turn the scene around. I’ve been editing for a long time, so it’s not like it’s shot from the hip, but I don’t do specific drawings of storyboard. I know exactly when I want a closeup of him.

Since this was a place where this really happened, was it obvious that you’d shoot at this particular location, or did you have to search it out?

No, no. We looked at a lot of places and we could’ve shot it anywhere, but this was the only untouched area in Denmark. You could have probably shot it in Australia and it would have been much easier, because it would be an untouched area, but I wanted to be on the exact location where actually the story happened. I thought it was important for me, for the cast, for the crew, to actually get out there where it all happened. It did give something to it. When Roland went down to the beach, it became his beach. It became his area – all the barbed wire, all the mines dug down. He could walk there, but he had to force the boys down there. It became a real location.

“Land of Mine” will be released in the US by Sony Pictures Classics. It will play once more at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 20 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 at 3:15 pm.