White God

White God
Director Kornél Mundruczó Cast Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér, Body and Luke Hungary/Germany/Sweden, 2014, 1h57m, 15.

Writer and director Kornél Mundruczó has observed an imbalance of power and a political shift in his home nation of Hungary, and seized upon it to frame the subject of his latest feature, White God.  Ostensibly a story of a pet dog, Hagen, cut loose from his owner Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and embarking on a journey back to her, the socio-political allegory within bares its teeth in equal measure. Winning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2014, White God captures a pervasive mood of discontent.

It is ten years since his previous film to feature in the same category at Cannes screened (Johanna, 2005). In the meantime, diverse material has inspired him, including a foray into retelling Shelley’s Frankenstein. Here, however, a more pressing motivation caught him. While visiting an animal shelter, Mundruczó felt moved by the opposition at work, as he occupied the free side of the fence, while the dogs were captured on the other side. His part in ‘the system’ became starkly apparent. He describes this experience further, saying “I’m also the white god that makes the decisions to help them, and I felt really ashamed. And I decided to create a movie out of it.”1

The relationship between Lili and Hagen is one of devotion, trust and heart. Lili is left with her abattoir employed Dad, while her Mum goes to work overseas. Hagen is not welcome in his new home, and finds himself banished to the bathroom for the night. Lili disobeys her father to sleep in the bath to comfort her beloved pet, serenading him with a novel lullaby as she plays the trumpet. Their relationship, separation and his consequent attempt to return evokes fellow waggy tales such as Lassie and Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.

The theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested that “animals are good to think”; bonne a penser.  2 In this context the statement can be taken to mean that they are good to think through. Long a symbol for groups of people, animals have the capacity to reflect not just our similarities, but also our differences. Within their own structures and hierarchies they provide a vehicle through which to examine our own behaviours. It is in this way that Hagen and his pack come to represent the underrepresented. Cross-breed Hagen (portrayed by Labrador/Shepherd/Shar Pei mixes Body and Luke) is the subject of a mixed breed (or ‘mutt’) tax. Such a tax was proposed in Hungary in reality, whereby pure bred Hungarian dogs would invite no fee, and thereafter, depending on the mix, varying charges would apply. Allusions to the issues of race, immigration, and scape-goats assigned by arbitrary criteria, are pertinent.

While investigating human social structures and the balance of power, Mundruczó also raises questions of the human treatment of animals. “The consequence of most human-animal encounters is the expression of harm via the pathways of power,” Malamud asserts.3 Such a statement is visually supported by opening scenes set in the abattoir, coolly documenting the processing of carcasses that will later be consumed. He continues, “If we try to think about these animals outside the proscribed, subservient two-dimensional role to which they are

almost always relegated in our culture, we may arrive at some interesting and insightful realisation about ourselves and about how much we do not know about animals.”4 The director attempts to offer such an additional dimension by investing the dogs with agency. He does this by sharing the animal’s perspective, increasingly returning the camera to a Hagen level point of view and directly placing the viewer in his position. Such orientation is utilised at the highest moments of tension – when he is first cut loose from his owner, captured by a stranger, or released into a dog fighting ring – when the animal is most vulnerable. Identification is therefore conferred when it is best employed.

Running on parallel tracks, Lili and Hagen’s narratives go off the rails into their respective difficulties. While Lili navigates adolescence without her faithful companion, Hagen is submitted to a harmful dog-fight training regime. Subject to such brutalisation, feral behaviour begins to brew. The sharp impacts of his mistreatment at the hands of humans, and his new reliance on wild instincts to survive, brings to mind the journeys charted in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, and White Fang. Even Black Beauty offers reference points, such are the number of hands through which the animal has passed. It is at this turning point that the film realigns itself, blurring genre boundaries. The naturalistic realism of the early scenes gives way to an altogether darker, horror infused tone. As Hagen’s wild instincts are reawakened, the film appears to descend into a dystopian nightmare. The dogs have more than one bone to pick with their oppressors.

Despite their divergent paths, one element of the filmmaking unites both Hagen and Lili in their now separate worlds. Classical music bridges their distance, from Lili continuing with her orchestra practice, to a Tom and Jerry concerto skit on the television which Hagen eyes with interest. In this way, despite the shift in tone and look to the film, a link between the two is maintained. While there are multiple metaphors at play, the music appears to represent a common language, or common humanity. Such a symbol goes on to perform a crucial role in the film, and imparts a greater message about focusing on what we share, rather than what we don’t. A timely modern parable, drawing on the best aspects of its predecessors, White God imploringly asks for understanding, acceptance and unity across differences.

Originally published on glasowfilm.org  Feb 2105

[1]http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2015/01/30/white_god_director_korn_l_mundrucz_on_the_movie_s_animal_rights_message.html

[2] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Totemisme Aujourd’hui (1962)

[3] Randy Malamud, An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture p. 71 (2012)

[4] Randy Malamud, An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture,  p. 24 (2012)

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