In contemporary Budapest 13 year old Lili reluctantly moves into her estranged father’s tiny flat when her mother takes up an overseas academic post. Her friend, the gentle giant Hagen, comes too, which doesn’t go down well with her dad. When a neighbour falsely claims Hagen has attacked her, Lili’s father throws him out. Hagen is brutalised by street life in a series of exploitative and abusive encounters.
After reaching the depths of degradation he is transformed into a leader of the oppressed. He rallies others in his situation and leads them in an organised and bloody revolt against every individual that has wronged him. It’s a campaign which leads inexorably back to Lili and her father.
This is a film about revolution. Hagen’s revolt is heralded by a lone trumpeter in Lili’s school orchestra playing the Internationale. The subject of the abused and dispossessed turning on their oppressors is something readers of Socialist Review will sympathise with and welcome. Director Kornél Mundruczó says the film was inspired by “increasingly rancorous present-day social relations” and that “faced with betrayal and friendship, the audience must take sides”. But Hagen and his rebel army are dogs — and this raises some difficulties.
Technically, the film is a great accomplishment. Mundruczó conjures up incredible performances from his canine cast. They are anthropomorphic without ever crossing into Disney mawkishness. Mundruczó’s aim is admirable. The film is intended to criticise the “privilege of white, Western civilisation” and its “detestable self-confidence, full of lies and lopsided truths”. Hungarian society is becoming increasingly hostile to minority groups. The fascist Jobbik party, with its profoundly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma ideology is flourishing.
Mundruczó has said he chose dogs as a metaphor for Hungary’s minorities because he wanted to “focus freely on this sensitive subject; as freely and with the least amount of taboos as possible”. But a metaphor can be read in many unintended ways. It is entirely possible to watch White God and sympathise with its canine revolutionaries without engaging with the oppression of minorities in Hungary at all.
In fact Mundruczó confuses the analogy by making two of the figures that torment Hagen members of the very minorities that Jobbik have targeted. Hagen is sold into dog-fighting by a money-grabbing Muslim kebab shop owner and is brutalised into becoming a killer fighting-dog by a Roma trainer. I’m certain a hard-core Jobbik racist could root for Hagen without having their prejudices troubled in the slightest. The metaphor Mundruczó has opted for actually gets in the way of the intended message that the oppressed will (and should) turn on their oppressors.