Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and played at this year’s New Directors/New Films festival, is a Hungarian fairy tale about a rag-tag gang of dogs who rise up and start a revolution. In the film, thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) lives in a society that taxes owners of mixed breed dogs. Because of the extra hassle, she is forced by her father to abandon Hagen, her loyal mutt. Hagen, initially desperate to find Lili again, fights his way through the brutal city streets, in a journey of metamorphosis and self-discovery.
Hagen, and the hearty mutts with which he teams up, are hunted by dogcatchers. These canines represent the downtrodden, and any group who faces racial or class oppression. Both Lili and Hagen are wide-eyed innocents, while the authority figures surrounding them are one-dimensional and sadistic. Hagen’s story demonstrates how easily a gentle soul can be corrupted by repeated abuse, turning it violent and angry in protest.
Two dogs were chosen to play Hagen, and many more were trained, and used in the film’s epic pack scenes, during which hundreds of canines rip through the city, terrorizing pedestrians and reaping their revenge on their tormentors. Nothing comparable to these dog army scenes has ever been seen before on film. The production used only mixed breeds from Hungarian shelters, and no animals were harmed in the making of the movie. In fact, the production’s talented team of dog trainers obeyed guidelines required by animal welfare organizations. White God is certified by Hungary’s White Cross Animal Protection Society.
I spoke with Mundruczó about how he got Oscar-worthy performances from his mongrel cast, what he learned working with the animals, and the poignant political symbolism at the heart of his film.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold I imagine working with dogs is a lot harder than working with people. How did you get these incredible performances from the dogs and what were the challenges you faced working with animals?
Kornél Mundruczó If you are a control freak, if you want to use them as adults, or as humans, then it won’t work. But, if you maintain patience, curiosity, and freedom for them, then it works very well. They are playing. They give their emotions to the audience, and that’s what you feel. You can follow their emotions, which is absolutely the most important thing in an animal movie. I’m not a huge fan of animal movies, especially movies from the communist, Soviet time. You feel that they were following orders, only. With lots of fear. They were really dead animals, performing. And, I was totally against that. But, with the conception of not using any CGI, everything is alive, which is special, for today.
AJG It would have been so much easier to use CGI in this film, especially for the scenes with hundreds of dogs running through the city. Why was it important for you not to use computer generated effects?
KM I believe in equality. I didn’t want to create animals with a human brain, and a human soul, generated by the computer. I think it’s against the topic and the meaning of this movie. This movie happened because I went to a dog pound and I felt such a shame in front of the fence. I watched their eyes, so I wanted to show their eyes, as clearly and directly as I could, to the audience. If I protest with anything, I protest with their eyes and their emotions. That’s why I insisted on not using CGI. I’m not against CGI. I mean, there’s some beautiful work, though it’s rare. But, not for this movie.
AJG Why were you at the dog pound?
KM At that time, I was working in theater, and I did Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, the South African writer. This book touched me. There’s a line in it that’s not the most important, but it happens at a dog pound. And, I thought the actors should go to a dog pound. It’s really difficult to imagine, and play it without knowing. We went there, and the lightning came.
AJG Do you think the dogs are aware of the camera in any way, or are they completely unselfconscious? Do they know they are “acting,” or are they merely responding to their trainers?
KM I think they’re playing. They’re playing for the trainers, for the camera, and also for each other. It’s kind of a mixture. Like good actors, who aren’t trying to be celebrated. We spent a lot of time together with the DP, with the trainers there. They understand the play between us, and we block it off, so that a lot of crew members can’t come into the space. We give them time, and sometimes we just do one shot all one day; sometimes we do five shots. We used positive reinforcement for the dogs, which is quite a new method. You just say, “Good” to them, even if they do totally the opposite. That taught me a lot. The dogs taught me a lot about how to be human. I needed that teaching, I think. I grew up in the countryside, so I know how it is, but since I’ve been in Budapest the last twenty years, I lost it and forgot it. It was really like therapy for me to create this movie. It was a human journey.
AJG For the scenes when the dogs grow angry and violent, growling and baring their teeth: how did you get them to act that way without making it dangerous for the actors?
KM There was no danger at all. Of course, they learned to play that, as well. They know they have certain gestures they do—more than the actors have! Then you can use those. They were not angry. After that moment, they were wagging their tails—immediately.
AJG I can’t believe dogs are able to pretend like that. They’re very smart.
KM Absolutely. And, of course, we did a lot of research, and I learned lots of science. If they are part of the family, and they feel the family, and we were the family—they can be very adult. They are like young adults, like ten-year-olds. They understand the rules. They know what to do inside the family. Sometimes they rewrote the script. It changed several times, based on what they could and could not do. That was really an experience.
AJG At times, the dogs will sit with their owners and watch TV, or, at least, stare at the screen. Do you think the dogs—Luke or Bodie—would recognize themselves if they saw the film?
KM Hopefully not. When the actors come to look at themselves in the monitor, I don’t like it. It’s too controlling. If you are controlling every second, where is your freedom? You take your own freedom.
AJG The story is also a metaphor for racial or class oppression. Is that based specifically on Hungary’s situation, or is it a universal story?
KM No, it’s a Hungarian story. I feel angry, because my society has really changed in the last ten years. It’s much more extreme, and loaded with a lot of fear. Fear is not the best decision maker. There are a lot of racist and chauvinistic elements, as well. Suddenly, this film has become the most internationally successful movie of mine, which is very interesting and surprising, because I’m reflecting totally on my reality in Budapest. I just recognized that we are not so far away from each other. At Cannes, people came from all over the world, and said, “You did a movie about my country.” From Greece to Mexico, from Korea to Columbia. Maybe, because of the animals, because of the dogs—you feel they are humans, and that we are the responsible ones. We need their love, and they give the love.
AJG And, they don’t care what country you’re from. And, they don’t recognize race.
KM Exactly. So, they symbolize all minorities, and not just themselves.
AJG So, things have gotten worse in Budapest over the last ten years?
KM Yes. The economic crisis was followed by a huge moral crisis. Now, there is less freedom, and there is less democracy. There is a lot of extremism coming up, maybe everywhere, but especially in our country. The powerful are quite intolerant. We think that the powerful are at fault, which is crazy. A lot of politics are loaded inside the society. We forget that we are the decision makers, that we don’t need any more kings. Eastern Europe has changed. This timeless melancholy is over. But, the country is still very alive.
AJG The dogs in the movie are all mixed breeds, mutts who are looked down upon. What is the group in Budapest to which the dogs correspond?
KM The gypsies, who are the biggest minority, or just the poor people and the homeless. All the minorities. We have a bad problem with homeless people. There’s an amazing number of them in Budapest. You can live with solidarity or without. I cannot say that it is one specific minority. We did the movie with the dogs—so, the movie is about dogs.
AJG What is the significance of the film’s title?
KM That also comes from Coetzee, from his philosophy. It’s the perspective of a dog, of course, watching us as if we were gods. We have the responsibility to decide what kind of god we are going to be.
AJG Hagen starts out as innocent, loving, and sweet. But, because he’s continually abused, he is forced to become defensive, and angry. He forgets who he is, which is what happens, also, to people when they are treated badly again, and again. They lose their sense of humanity. They can become like animals in response.
KM But, they still keep the truth. That’s the contradiction I would like to use.
AJG You have a side story of Lili performing in the school orchestra. At one point she quiets an entire dog army with her trumpet. What is the significance of music in the film, for you?
KM Actually, on the one hand, this is a silent movie because dogs don’t talk. So I wanted to use music. At the same time, this “Hungarian Rhapsody,” that she plays is really iconic music, which is absolutely about our freedom. But, today, it’s mostly used by the nationalists, as the “most Hungarian” piece of music, which is stupid. It’s music about freedom. Never forget that. And, that’s why I used that song, and, also, why I used her trumpet solo. I wanted her to play the trumpet because it’s quite rebellious. Not so many women play the trumpet. The trumpet is really a war instrument, from ancient times. Also, I love the tale by the Grimm Brothers about the flute, and the rats.
AJG The Pied Piper?
KM Yes. I used the motif that music is the most human thing, which brings calm, or peace, after a certain point. I quite believe that music is really human, and really our best part, somehow. I wanted to use her as a music maker, so she has the sense to be human.
AJG I love the moment at the end of the film, when Lili’s father lies down on the ground with her. It’s subtle, but profound. Does he learn his lesson? Has he realized how to be a better dad? It almost took Hagen running away for her to get close with him. She needed someone to replace her best friend.
KM Absolutely. And, the father is the most developed character. He changes; he sacrifices; and, yes, he learns his lesson; and, much more so than the others do.
AJG Well, the others are killed off by the dogs!
KM Yeah, but also they don’t learn anything.
AJG You mean they couldn’t change. They weren’t going to learn anything anyway.
KM Exactly. They are totally blind and intolerant from the beginning to the end. And Lili keeps her innocence. Her character was developed to keep it. That’s her task. In this story, the father comes to understand something more. He’s the closest character to me. We must rethink, always, the main questions. If we don’t, then we are easily lost, and become blind, fearful, and intolerant.
AJG So, what the father learned in the movie is kind of what you learned in making the movie.
KM Exactly. I can’t say a nice sentence like this, but that’s it.
White God opened Friday, March 27 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. A national rollout follows in April.