Interview: Johannes Schönherr, North Korea cinema expert

Even a cursory google around the internet on the subject of North Korean cinema will lead you, quite rightly, in the direction of Johannes Schönherr.

My first introduction to Schönherr came when I discovered that his memoir “Trashfilm Roadshow” contained within it a chapter on his experiences travelling to North Korea in search in search of weird and wacky movies to fit in with the obscure titles he’d been touring around the world.

His delightfully boozy adventures take him from his native Germany to the US, North Korea and, finally, to Japan where he now resides and the whole book is definitely worth a read to discover how those films “from the outside” can be cherished in some many different situations and settings.

Having written a number of articles on North Korean cinema, I was pleased to see Johannes pop up on the comments section of this site. After exchanging a few emails (and a few rare North Korean DVDs) I decided it would be the perfect time to interview him for the site. This year will see the release of his opus “North Korean Cinema” which will finally provide the world with an English-language history of the cinema of the DPRK. I, for one, cannot wait for the book to be released. Below is the interview I conducted recently via email.

DPRK Films: Can you explain briefly how you became interested in North Korean cinema?

JS: Will try to do it as briefly as possible but still, it’s a longer story. I’ve always been interested in strange, far-out films. In films, that don’t usually run in the neighborhood theater. Back in the 1980s, I joined an anarchist cinema collective in Nuremberg, where I was living at the time. There, I learned everything about running a theater…  and I could book all the weird movies into the program that I had read about but hadn’t been able to see.

That was the video age but I always wanted to see films on the big screen, projected from celluloid in front of an audience.

I was very much into American underground movies at the time, the films by Richard Kern or the Kuchar brothers. I got into contact with some of those underground film directors and arranged European tours for them.

But after a while, arranging tours for other people wasn’t that satisfying anymore. I wanted to go on the road with movies myself… and explore new territories. Like Japan for example. My then Japanese girlfriend arranged a tour of me doing shows with a program of American underground shorts in 1997… and I loved it.

At the same time, the Film House in Copenhagen asked me to program a sort of travelling festival of Japanese cyberpunk and to tour it through Europe. I did that and it went well.

So, after American punk porn and Japanese cyberpunk, where do you go next? It was 1998 and North Korea was all over the news for shooting a rocket over Japan. I had read somewhere that they make movies in North Korea and I thought, ‘Now, checking those ones out would be a trip’.

By coincidence, a friend running a small independent theater in Berlin told me that North Korean diplomats came to his office every week, always with a movie title list in hand and asking him to get them 35mm prints of those titles as quickly as possible. Probably, they were getting movies straight for Kim Jong Il’s viewing pleasure.

Anyway, my friend introduced me to those diplomats and things went on from there. I got invited to Pyongyang in 1999, watched movies there for a week, then selected about 10 of them and took them on a tour through Europe.

I got invited back to Pyongyang for the film festival in 2000 but basically, after the tour, my direct involvement with the North Koreans ended.

At that Pyongyang visit in 2000, though, I bought a book called Korean Film Art which more or less catalogued the major North Korean films up to 1985.

With that book and the North Korean films I had seen so far as a base, I started to research the history of North Korean cinema.

Why? Because it seemed nobody else had done that before. Well, people have done it but they didn’t publish much about it in English. So, I just went deeper and deeper into it, found more and more material over the years… and I’m still love exploring North Korean cinema. North Korea is such a secretive place… but you can learn a lot about it from watching their movies. I don’t believe in any of the messages they try to get out with their movies… but I can see what kind of messages they try to get out and how they do it. Their films reveal a lot about North Korea’s genuine outlook on the world. Because those movies are basically made for a domestic audience, they don’t hold back in what they tell… they deliver the direct messages the leadership wants to convey to their people. Fascinating stuff.

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