A German pensioner who made headlines last year for breeding giant rabbits -- and selling a batch to North Korea with the idea of easing hunger -- is the subject of a short documentary by an American director in the the 2008 Berlin Film Festival. Director Julius Onah made the five-minute film -- a clip can be seen by clicking on the video below -- after reading about Karl Szmolinsky on SPIEGEL ONLINE. And in doing so, he learned that the rabbits may have been eaten by North Korean functionaries instead of the starving people for whom they were intended.
Szmolinsky is a 68-year-old German living in Eberswalde, near Berlin, who won a prize for breeding a 10.5-kilogram (23.1 pound) rabbit named Robert in 2006. Robert was the size of a small dog. When North Korean leaders saw photos of him they contacted Szmolinsky through a breeding federation, hoping to purchase a line of "German Giant Grays" to alleviate hunger in their hermetic Communist state.
Szmolinsky grew up in East Germany, and he agreed to help. He sold a dozen to the North Koreans at a cut rate -- 80 euros instead of the going rate of 200 or 250 euros -- and told SPIEGEL ONLINE in early 2007 that the 12 rabbits could produce 60 babies a year. Each animal, he estimated, would feed about eight people. "They'll be used to help feed the population," he said at the time. "I've sent them 12 rabbits so far; they're in a petting zoo for now. I'll be travelling to North Korea in April to advise them on how to set up a breeding farm. A delegation was here and I've already given them a book of tips."
After reading about Szmolinsky during a visit to Germany in January 2007, Onah assembled a film crew. He visited Szmolinsky in the wake of worldwide publicity about his anti-hunger scheme, on a day when the rabbit breeder was fielding phone calls from complete strangers who objected to his deal with the North Koreans.
"We actually didn't spend that much time talking about the rabbits," said Onah. "We spent most of our time talking about conditions in East Germany, both before and after the fall of the Wall." But concerned strangers had started complaining to Szmolinsky for sending live animals to North Korea, where animal-rights standards aren't up to snuff.
The resulting short, called "Szmolinsky," concentrates on the harassing phone calls.
Onah, 25, is a graduate student at New York University's film school and he made "Szmolinsky" to fulfill a class assignment. The film is evocative but not detailed; Onah spent a total of four hours with Szmolinsky and only later learned what became of his project to feed North Korea.
"In April of '07 Szmolinsky was supposed to go to North Korea himself and oversee the breeding of the rabbits," Onah told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But some time between January and April he found out that the rabbits he sent got eaten (by senior officials). All 12 of them. So he refused to cooperate with the North Koreans."
Meanwhile the South Korean government has contacted Szmolinsky. "The South Koreans would like him to send his rabbits there," said Onah, "and they sent this letter which even apologized for the behavior of their neighbors in the north."
Szmolinsky himself attended the Berlinale premiere of the film with one of his giant rabbits on February 8. Onah said he might make a longer film about the story, given funding and time -- he's interested in the parallels between a divided Cold-War Germany and a divided Korean peninsula -- but right now other projects are crowding his schedule.