Hungarian Oscar submission “White God” is a visually and intellectually provocative movie that uses animals to tell a human fable. A young girl Lili (Zsófia Psotta) loves and loses her mixed-breed dog Hagen, who then is trained and drugged by a brutish owner to be violent. He escapes and leads a pack of feral dogs to rebel against the humans who mistreated them.
When the filmmakers were chasing a foreign Oscar nomination–which did not arrive–they brought their sweet-faced American wrangler and charismatic dog star to screenings to reassure audiences that no animals were harmed during the production.
I spoke to filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó after one of those screenings about how he mixes his genres to tell this unusual fairy tale, which Magnolia Pictures opens March 27.
Anne Thompson: Did you have a literary inspiration for this film? I was thinking of Jack London because he used the animals as a vehicle for raising social consciousness. Or even a book like “Black Beauty,” because we care so much about animals that you’re manipulating us in a way.
Kornél Mundruczó: Absolutely, and also “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Dumas, this romantic end of 19th century nobles. On one hand it looks very realistic but this is a fairy tale.
The dog is like a classic movie hero in the sense that he’s smarter and better off, a little more adorable, than he would ordinarily be, and more capable of violence.
You cannot do such a hero with a human anymore. But you can do it with a dog. That’s why it was very difficult to find a theme because if you do a normal gypsy movie about it, you don’t care. It’s immediately pathetic.
You have to find a way into reaching people.
All of our stories are retelling somehow, always. There are no new stories. There are no new personalities or views. There are lots of things you can do but the story is somehow always the same. But he can be a revolutionary.
The tricky part is when you suggest that he has been artificially enhanced by all the drugs, not just training him to be aggressive, but making him into a revolutionary.
I wanted the idea that the humans were the ones creating it, and that’s why I wanted to show the process–and it is a process–and be as precise as I could with those scenes.
When you shift genres in the course of the film, were you concerned about making those transitions? How far were you going to go in the direction of “Cujo” or “The Birds” or “Amores Perros”? How far were you going to go with horror and revenge? You had to know where the line was.
That’s a really fragile balance inside a movie. That, for me, is really important because the world has totally changed around me. I don’t believe in just hardcore arthouse or even an action movie. I think our world is different now. If I went from one block to another in Budapest, there would be a horror movie, a political satire, a comedy, just in one block. That’s the world we live in. That’s how we use all these things. If I want to have a contemporary answer, then I would just believe that kind of mixture is absolutely in our world. That’s why it started with a huge emotional drive between a little girl and a dog–
I definitely saw a Walt Disney movie, like “The Aristocats” or “Lady in the Tramp,” especially with the relationship between the two dogs.
Absolutely. That was one of the main meanings: I would like to find a new cinematic language for myself. How can I mix genres together?
In Hungary, which immigrant groups are being treated badly?
Of course we have a huge gypsy minority in Budapest and in Hungary. Also we have a huge Jewish community as well and the phobias absolutely exist more and more in Hungary, and of course, I’m half-Romanian. I always wanted to film myself as a minority, actually everywhere, because I think minorities mirror the way society works. So of course this movie’s about minorities, with a huge social criticism. How is history repeating itself? This story is not so far from the second World War. We are in Europe and we are starting to build those kinds of laws and we have lots of fear of immigration. That’s true, it’s really a contradiction: from the Middle East, and Africa, it’s an exodus. Everybody wanted to live in Europe or in the US or whatever. All this fear and phobia is totally in Europe. I felt I’ve made my most international movie.
Were you surprised when “White God” got into Un Certain Regard?
Actually I was twice in Competition.
So why were they putting you in Un Certain Regard?
It’s because it was so violent. It wasn’t a red carpet movie, right?
But then you won.
Yes, so that was a good decision and the movie is growing and growing. It’s really good to feel that.
How did it play in Hungary?
Very well I must say. It was really important for me. The Hungarian audiences totally lost ten years to watch any Hungarian movies. But Communism’s over so I really would like to find young audiences again and communicate with them because we are living in the same world.
Is that why you created the young protagonist?
Absolutely. How we lost innocence is a big question. The story of Lily is also important for me, as is the story of the father, and at the end he can switch and when everybody is on the ground, it means, “I believe in equality.” This is an important message for myself in our absolutely historicized country. “Let’s start from the beginning.”
That central image of the girl on a bicycle being chased by dogs is extraordinary. You were really going against what was possible here. Many people would tell you that you couldn’t do this–wrangle so many dogs at once. It must have been a nightmare for you.
I found the Hungarian trainer, who was not in the film industry. He is more of an animal trainer and uses special methods. I don’t know if I became a better man at the end, but I try to believe that.