Alfred Hitchcock, Budapest, horror film, Hungarian film, karmic retribution, Komel Mundruczo, moral parable, Netflix, poetic justice, political parable, systematic oppression of minority groups, The Birds, WSJ
My interest in Muncruczo’s film White God was piqued when I read its positive review in the Arena section of WSJ a few months ago. I do not remember exactly what it said, but I remember a steal shot from the film of hundreds of dogs running on a city street in a rather organized manner. So it was a pleasant surprise when I recently discovered the film was now available from the Netflix.
My husband and I sat down in front of our TV screen and began to watch Mundruczo’s acclaimed film. It started with a bird’s eye shot of a young tween girl riding a bicycle on a deserted city street. Soon she is followed by hundreds of dogs. The crane shot of this scene is astounding in its eerie nightmarishness, mostly due to the fact of a young girl being chased after by so many dogs and partially due to the empty city streets. (One can tell that the scene was shot very early in the morning from the long shadows created by street objects. But, this is certainly beside the point.) And my husband said that it was a dog version of Hitchcock’s The Birds. As it often happens, he was soon called away. So I stopped the film and instead watched a US Open tennis match in case he would like to see the film.
Later, I decided to watch the film by myself for my husband was no longer interested in seeing the film. And I am glad that I watched this strange, emotionally draining film in its entirety. In some ways, the film was like The Birds in its theme, the revenge of nature against humans. Humans exploit and misuse nature, but soon it will strike back at you humans. In Hitchcock’s The Birds the birds’ sudden assaults on humans was more dumbfounding and frightening because human bad behaviors against nature were not spelled out. It was a horror film. But, in Muncruczo’s film White God humans’ “questionable” behaviors are represented in such an explicit manner that even an oblivious viewer can see some problems in many accepted human behaviors. For instance, early on in the film, when the young girl’s father, a former professor turned a meat inspector, is introduced in a slaughterhouse, the butchering of a cow is shown, underscoring the exploitativeness of many human behaviors toward other animals while at the same time foreshadowing the visceral nature of the film narrative. (The scene was so graphic that it made me want to become a vegetarian.)
The film has Hagen, an intelligent “mutt,” as one of its main characters. Hagen is not a cutesy dog that often appears in children’s films about dogs. He is muscular and its eyes suggest his intelligence but also some unfathomable alieness, that nevertheless commands some respect. He is a loyal dog to its 13-year-old owner Lilli who treats him as her equal. However, due to a difficult family situation, Hagen gets abandoned on a busy street in Budapest. (At this point, the film takes the form of an adventure story told by Hagen, the dog.) As he tries to find Lilli he gets abused by many people he encounters. Indeed, some characters’ cruelty to Hagen is so gut-wrenching and realistic that at times one cannot help wonder if the filmmakers could avoid committing real violence against the dogs in the film – a disturbing thought that makes one wonder if we the viewer are complicit in the crime committed against the dogs if that had happened. (According to the filmmakers, the dogs are shelter dogs that were trained by dog trainers, and nothing untoward happened on the film set.) Nevertheless, precisely because of the explicit cruelty Hagen undergoes in his transformation into a fighting dog, the viewer gets involved emotionally, and hopes he will fight back against those brutes. And because of its individualized narrative from Hagen’s point of view the film takes a form of moral parable about karmic retribution rather than a horror film. Bad deeds one does to others come back against one. The film is essentially a revenge story, but it does not end there. More importantly it is a political parable of a society that oppresses minority groups. In Muncruczo’s Hungary the mixed breeds are treated inhumanely in a systematic manner: they are taxed more and they get killed more easily. Thus, the uprising of the abandoned dogs toward the end of the film strikes the viewer reasonable. It’s a poetic justice – although a disturbing one.