Dogs have sat alongside humankind for generations, acting both as guardians and best friends. It isn’t uncommon today to walk into a household and be greeted by a furry, four-legged creature. Dogs can be the center of attention at any house party, and you even see people walking down the street lose their minds upon a dog sighting. The idea that dogs are one of the most trustworthy creatures on Earth has been instilled into the minds of millions of people around the world. But what happens if this trust is broken? Imagine a world where dogs are alienated and have become public enemy number one. In this edition of “Fear Needs No Translation,” we dive into the dark fantasy of Hungarian director, Kornél Mundruczó, where he makes this nightmare a reality in his 2014 film, White God.
Kornél Mundruczó isn’t a stranger to the film industry, having a variety of acting and directing jobs, including films such as Delta (2008) and Johanna (2005). Mundruczó surpasses the artistry that is film; his craft has become an outlet for voicing his opinion on many social and political matters. With the help of acting rookie, Zsófia Psotta, White God has been recognized for its technical cinematography, artistic aesthetic, and issue-driven allegory.
In a not-so-distant future, the Hungarian government has created a tax on mongrel dogs that would nearly bankrupt any mutt owner. As a result, dog populations have skyrocketed in shelters, as well as strays in the street. Mundruczó’s White God follows the story of Lili and her dog, Hagen, as the two face the struggles of separation, abuse, and finding acceptance in the world. Having been forced to living on the streets by Dániel, Lili’s father, Hagen quickly learns his place in society. Gaining an obsession of saving her best friend, Lili soon realizes that the innocence of her world is a façade. Literally being thrown to the curb, Hagen and the other dogs of this ingenious film rise up as the newest form of terrorists. With all hope seemingly fading away, Lili must take a stand against the beast she once considered her friend to find the light in his soul. White God is a beautifully crafted movie, comprised of the spectacle of a melodrama, while incorporating elements of contemporary horror. A true spectacle, Mundruczó and his cast spin together a tale that will have your emotions toyed with from start to finish.
Zsófia Psotta steals the show, displaying her dynamic skills as an actor in the role of Lili. Psotta shows a multitude of emotions including resentment towards her parents, a rebellious outbreak, and the undying love she’s found in her companion, Hagen. Having been a youthful 17 years of age at the release of her debut film, Psotta marched into the film industry ready to shine. Taking command of the screen, her interpretation of Lili is extremely believable. After losing her best friend, Lili does anything she can to find her dog, even if that means breaking the rules in the process. Through various angsty acts, such as sneaking out after dark, partaking in underage drinking, and disobeying her father at every opportunity she gets, Lili is the epitome of teen mutiny standing up for a misunderstood cause. Psotta’s displays her maturity as an actor whilst acting immaturely, all without becoming a stereotype in the process.
The soundtrack of White God plays a balancing act of classical and contemporary. In the tunes composed by Asher Goldschmidt, various themes and leitmotifs can be heard throughout the film, giving emotional cues to the audience. Backed by the works of Hungarian pianist and composer, Franz Liszt, in contrast to the electronic sounds of the Volkova Sisters, the entirety of the music in this film induces emotions of sadness, longing, hope, and fear. The trumpet becomes synonymous with this film. The brassy sound it produces becomes symbolic of the relationship between Lili and Hagen — a sound that is rough and builds tension out of context, but is beautiful when looking at the full picture.
Animal uprisings in film isn’t an original concept, but White God has taken this idea and recycled it to make something completely different than its predecessors. Mundruczó’s inspirations can be seen in both the 1960s franchise, The Planet of the Apes, and the more notable Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds. All three of these films take on animal revolution, but each with its own respective motivation. The factor that makes White God stand out from other films with similar subjects is the intelligence of the dogs. I believe that Mundruczó picked dogs specifically for their understood comprehension of human culture. The Birds uses its titular animal for their chaotic behavior, and The Planet of the Apes utilizes our common ancestor for their superior intellect to others in the animal kingdom. Dogs, on the other hand, have a knowledge set that is inferior to humans, but still hold a pack mentality that can create an organized chaos. The fear behind dogs is that we underestimate their abilities.
There is a noticeable use of symmetry throughout White God, making an aesthetically pleasing artwork. The common use of this in horror is to make irony with the unbalance of the film — a tactic that can be difficult to pull off, but Mundruczó manages to take on the challenge successfully.
On a physical standpoint, his shot selection is absolutely breathtaking. Mundruczó has found a way to show the beauty in disorder. Particularly, in the opening scene, the audience is treated to an astonishing shot of Lili riding a bike through the abandoned streets while being chased by a pack of vicious dogs. The balance of the fine lines of the building architecture and streets only further accelerate the anxiety-producing situation. This tactic is used again later in the film, when Hagen is leading his pack through a tunnel. This time, Mundruczó uses the symmetry of the tunnel as well as its size to induce a claustrophobic tightness — one that puts the audience in the paws of the dogs.
In his allegory, there is also a mirrored symmetry in the lives of Lili and Hagen. Each time that either of the pair faces an obstacle, the other faces a similar challenge. Hagen gets sold into the dog fighting industry, and Lili sells out to the older kids at school and gives into their mischievous ways. Lili is thrown under the bus by becoming a drug mule, while Hagen is turned into a completely different animal by his new owner. The list goes on and on. Though the two are separated by distance, they’re forever intertwined in life. There’s an irony in this I find to be deliberate, and gets the point across that Lili and Hagen are one soul in two bodies.
The slaughterhouse that Dániel works at also becomes the beginning and end of the circle of disorder that is White God. When Dániel and Lili first interact in the movie, they meet at her father’s workplace: a slaughterhouse. Prior to taking her home, we first meet him in the building, inspecting meat for any impurities. We are then taken outside to where Lili and her mother are waiting for him. After a quick exchange between the divorced parents, Lili and Hagen are handed off to Dániel. As we watch the family leave in Dániel’s car, we also see cows being led into the slaughterhouse. This imposition of the images shows that the family is quite literally being led to their demise. At the end of the film, the climatic finish takes place on the campus of the slaughterhouse. Hagen and his pack of beasts have Lili cornered, as her father watches from a distance — quite literally the cattle being led to slaughter.
White God predominantly address the issue of xenophobia in a modern setting. This concept that supersedes racism is very much real, though some people turn a blind eye to it. Mundruczó uses the dogs as a metaphor for immigrants — a wise choice in my opinion. Generally speaking, those who view outsiders from a xenophobic perspective look at foreigners as animals, and treat them as such.
The premier example of this may be seen in World War II, Nazi Germany. Under the regime of Adolf Hitler, a harsh social environment led to the genocide of millions of Jewish civilians in central and eastern Europe. Laws under his administration forced the Jewish people into exile, both by location and by association. Similarly, White God forces mixed breed dogs out of their homes, and then traps them in cramped animal shelters, ultimately to be killed.
We would all like to believe that this racist practice is no longer seen, but that would only be a lie. In 2012, Hungarian parliament member, Marton Gyongyosi, called for the identification of government members with Jewish ancestry. His anti-Semitism was met with public outrage, as well as that from members of the Jobik party. Gyongyosi’s call for a government cleansing can be seen through the exile of the mongrel dogs in White God. Gyongyosi’s list would expose members of parliament, and under his administration, segregate the government, much like the pure-breed dogs and mutts in this beautiful film.
A prominent theme of White God is animal rights. Throughout the obstacles Hagen must hurdle, the morality of human treatment toward animals is questioned. Nearly every person Hagen faces treats him as some sort of tool that they can benefit from; the homeless man sells Hagen for the money, the mob uses the dog for their black market, and the trainer makes Hagen into a monster for his sick fights. In many industrialized countries, the laws for animal rights are very vague. For the most part, the laws restrict animal torture, but using animals for sport, hunting, and other physical activities really have no clear outline. As a result, many animals today are forced into industries against their will. It should be our duty as humans to know the fine line between companionship and abuse, a concept that Mundruczó points out quite well here.
White God is a revolutionary film that does a fantastic job of fulfilling its duty of cinematic artistry, while simultaneously investigating the themes of xenophobia and animal rights. Through the irony of the symmetry, and a soundtrack that invokes a multitude of emotions, the audience is brought through a dreamscape like no other. Though drawing inspirations from other animal anarchy films, White God manages to stand out under the individual creativity of Mundruczó. The Hungarian director looks at pressing social issues and integrates them into a story that is simply genius.
Until the next installment of “Fear Needs No Translation,” this is Fortes signing off.
— Justin Fortes, Film Blogger
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