You have never seen a dog movie like “White God,” the singular cinematic effort that won Cannes’s top prize in the Un Certain Regard section last year. With echoes as disparate as “Lassie,” “The Birds,” and “Amores Perros,” Kornél Mundruczó’s genre-bending fable imagines a world in which marginalized stray dogs uprise against their cruel human oppressors.
When 13-year-old Lili is sent to stay with her emotionally distant father in Budapest, she brings along her other half: a soft-hearted but rambunctious rescue dog, Hagen. But the reality that meets them is unwelcoming and indifferent to their bond. “Mutts have to be reported in Hungary,”a neighbor admonishes, and proceeds to call the police. Lili must send Hagen back to the streets. What ensues is an Odyssean journey that exposes Hagen to darkest impulses of humanity.
Incredibly shot without the aid of CGI, Mundruczó and his team unleashed 250 dogs into the streets of Budapest to create the film’s most thrilling sequences. The sight of hundreds of dogs storming the streets plays like a childhood fever dream. Perhaps even more incredible is the performance Mundruczó and the trainers elicited from the two dogs that play Hagen; not even Old Yeller could out-act these expressive brothers, who speak volumes with their eyes, body language, and acute reactions. Though “White God” succeeds as an unflinching criticism of humanity and gritty allegory of the political tensions inundating contemporary Europe, it’s the familiar story of a girl and her lost dog that gives the film its beating heart.
Indiewire sat down with the contemplative Mundruczó to discuss the forces behind “White God,” from the ethos of risk-taking filmmaking to the reason why everyone should own a pet dog. The film is currently playing at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York and opens this Friday in select theaters.
This is a very visually strong film, which is important since the main characters are a reticent child and a dog. What was the first image you had?
It was two images that came together. One is a really personal touch: I went to a dog pound, and I was shocked. I was like, ‘How can they stay behind the fences, and I’m in front, and I’m part of this system?’ I felt ashamed. I immediately decided when I watched their eyes that I would like to do a movie.
At the same time, after my fourth feature, I felt I couldn’t [employ] the same cinematic language that I had been using, because the reality surrounding me as an Eastern European was totally changing. The thing [that I knew to be] Eastern Europe — slow, melancholy beauty — that’s gone. Now it’s extreme and fast as hell. It’s just the opposite. I really tried to reflect on that as well, to find a theme for that. So when I was standing there at the dog pound, I felt that kind of symbolized this new kind of living in Eastern Europe. Because there are these two things coming together, it’s a really genre-melting movie.
Are you a dog lover or animal rights advocate?
Yeah. I grew up with dogs, so I have a really good memory of that. I think it’s really healthy, to grow up with dogs. But I forgot it. So after I was living in the countryside, I grew up in the country, and then I went to Budapest, to university, I lost that. I can’t say I was a huge animal rights fighter, but now I am, totally. On the one hand I am an animal rights fighter, because of the animals, but on the other hand because of the society. So I would like to live in a society where animals have rights, and also every plant has rights. I passionately believe in equality. We share the earth with everything that’s alive. As humans, we easily forget it. It’s really stupid. It’s almost the most simple thing, that you can share with others; it’s primitive.
I understood the film as an allegory for disenfranchised people where the dogs represent a minority up against a harsh political system. Did you conceive the story with these intentions?
You could say it’s an allegory for one minority, like, for example the Gypsies in Hungary. But it’s more like a model for how any major group can push down any kind of minority. So the dogs, in my eyes, are all types of minorities, and are mirroring us, the majority. I’ve tried to horribly criticize that majority in my society.
Do you think filmmakers have a social responsibility to speak to this inequality?
Not just filmmakers. Everyone who is part of the society, if you believe in democracy. This isn’t just a task for artists, but if you are an artist and not working with the belief that you can change the world to make a better one, then don’t do it at all. I don’t want to be pessimistic. If I were, then I wouldn’t want to continue. Then just close the door and wait for death. [Laughs] It’s not a good perspective. I think in the last 10 years, societies have changed a lot. When the attack happened, September 11, 2001… Well, we’re just trying to understand it now. And also the economic crisis that happened 10 years ago, and the moral crises. We are absolutely in the middle of a moral crisis. All of society is loaded with lots of fear, and fear is not the best decision-maker. My society is totally like that. So I understand the electors, because they are loaded by the fear, the existence of fear, but this is not why you should be racist, or chauvinistic, or against refugees. We are living in a very interesting time!
That’s interesting, because the world you’ve depicted in the film is very pessimistic: it’s indifferent, harsh, and unrelenting. Lili and Hagen encounter very little warmth. There’s a huge lack of trust between people. Why did you set up that worldview?
Well, the girl and the dog are the innocents. They love each other. They have no other families. They are a family. So she and he, Hagen and Lili, are the family. They are the harmony. So when they lost each other, like in a fairy tale, there are one-dimensional characters surrounding them: no love from the mother, no love from the father, no love from the possible boyfriend for her. But she keeps the innocence, which is the bravest step, after such a pressure by society [to let go of it]. She keeps it. And that’s our hope. And that’s our task, but sometimes we are lost. Maybe I have lost my innocence. And the same with the dog; of course he becomes a killer. He gets revenge, but he has a moral behind it. Both characters are really contradictory. They are not just characters who just do good things.
They’re really complex, but you understand them. Because they keep their innocence, that’s why you give them your empathy. The world is rude. It’s not a realistic movie at all, so of course in real life it’s much more layered, all of the characters. But this is a fairy tale. [Laughs]
So if you were to give this movie a genre, it would be a fairy tale?
That’s very difficult for me. I really would like to reflect on mixing genres together, and this melding is really important for me. That’s the reality where we are living. I don’t believe in pure genres.
How have Hungarians responded to the political undertones?
This is the most fragile territory of film: how is your own self mirrored inside the movie? But “White God” was quite well-received, so I was really happy. Not just from the critics, but also because people are coming and watching it. That was really important for me, because I feel it’s an ode to cinema. And the ode to cinema has almost no audience in Hungary, just very specific parts of Budapest maybe. It’s really made numbers all over the country. People are really coming and watching, without being a part of a protest of any kind or political party. I’m happy they enjoyed the ride. It was my dream to create this movie, to start to work with dogs. Totally honestly, I didn’t know what would come out of it…. the whole movie, how it mixes the genres. I was totally surprised that audiences do [like it]. We took lots of risks. I really like audiences like this, who take risks to have new experiences.
Can you tell me about the logistics of working with the dogs? There were 200, correct?
250. It was a huge process. On the one hand, everybody thought, Kornél, you can’t do this movie without CGI. And I thought no, my main conception was no CGI, no pure breed dogs. Just mixed breeds, mostly from the dog pound. Because I believe in equality, I didn’t want to illustrate it as a human. I wanted to show what an animal feels without drawing that through a computer. It’s really against the soul of this movie. Then I found two amazing people, Teresa Miller and Árpád Halász, the two lead trainers. Teresa was the trainer for the hero dogs, and Árpád was for the crowd, the bunch. And what they do is amazing. They used a totally new method for that, I can’t remember what it’s called….
Exactly, yes. That’s so great, and easily forgotten. The dogs felt they were playing. It’s a dramatized nature movie, somehow. We gave lots of freedom for the animals. I don’t like most animal movies because the animals [feel] dead. They follow orders with lots of fear of the trainer. What were are doing was just the opposite. Logistically, we had half a year of training time. We had a very special method for shooting: one week shooting, one week rehearsing. We built a kind of town in the countryside where we could rehearse, because you cannot block locations in the city. And for me, personally, it was like therapy. I forgot how it was to be close to animals. How much patience and how much time you need, and concentration and curiosity. I have an adult control freak attitude. The dogs taught me a lot.
What did they teach you, exactly?
Curiosity, patience, and to change perspective. Not just using my perspective as the truth. It also taught me a lot of positive things as a father. I started to use positive reinforcement with my children, which is much better.
Were you surprised by the performance you got from the two dogs that played Hagen? They were so expressive, particularly their eyes. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before onscreen.
The whole dog part is much more powerful than I’d imagined it could be when starting to work on it. The main meaning of the story is them: to be in the present. They rise, they are there, they have emotion, they are running, and they are who they are. You cannot create that; this is something that is more than me. That’s what I’m totally appreciative of. The dogs give us that, like in a documentary. There is a beautiful sentence in the Godard movie “Goodbye to Language.”His dog is talking and says, “The humans don’t love themselves as much as dogs like humans.”This is so true. And you watch it, in their eyes. So at the end, when they are sitting and lying down, they do it for the trainers, not because of Lili trumpeting. They do that for the human, with those eyes. It’s incredible. They give…. they just give.
There was a lot of violence in the film. How did you want people to receive that?
Violence is the black part of humans. In the middle of the film there are some things which are tough to watch. But we need those things to be close to the truth; we can’t step away. If you want to understand the story, you need these symptoms.
Were there any films that influence your visual style?
I can’t say only one at all. I watch lots of end of ’80s, beginning of ’90s post-apocalyptic movies. Like “Terminator.”I really like those American movies which reflect society. Also, the Soviet movies from my childhood. There are huge war scenes. But I really tried to create something new for this movie. We used zoom lenses and vertical perspective, and we’d go down to the dog’s level.
What do you wish you saw more in contemporary films?
Take risks. Try to find not chosen ways. It’s not a business. Entertainment is an important issue, of course, because everybody wants to have an audience. But if you just make a product, then it’s senseless. You need soul and you need risk for that. You need to find your way.