Film Review: White God

An illuminating exploration of humanity through animals.
By Devon Ashby, June 2015

If your live in North America, it’s possible you’ve noticed a rising tide recently of news coverage and public dialog related to ethnic discrimination and racially motivated violence. The high visibility of #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe and other solidarity-based social media phenomena in recent months is just one manifestation of an uncomfortable, mounting social awareness among sheltered denizens of the U.S. and its surrounding territories that systematic oppression, abuse of power, and covert white supremacy are still alive and well. In Eastern Europe, many of these issues have become depressingly old-hat— particularly in Hungary, where nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation have recently given way to a resurgence of white nationalist cries for enforced ethnic purity.

Enter White God, a new film by acclaimed Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, which opened in the U.S. in March. The movie tells the story of a group of rowdy canines confined to an overcrowded public shelter in Budapest who break free of their chains and storm the streets of the city, waging bloody retaliation against their human oppressors. White God draws upon Eastern Europe’s painfully recent history of government tyranny and exploitation under Communism, as well as its subsequent slide into radical ultra-con- servatism, to construct a fast-paced, emotionally devastating parable about the fearsome power of a dehumanized underclass.

The film’s perspective shifts between that of the four-legged rebel leader, Hagen, and his adolescent human sympathizer, Lili. While Hagen endures starvation, abuse and confinement, Lili roams the streets searching for her lost pet, whose agonies are the result of a cruel, impulsive abandonment by Lilli’s embittered father. The real culprit, though, is a “mutt tax” levied against all non-purebreds, which is so ridiculously high that Lili’s father refuses to pay it.

“During the last eight years, Hungary has become more and more extreme,” Mundruczó laments. Indeed, the country’s third most popular political party, according to recent polls, is Jobbik, a rhetorically aggressive Hungarian nationalist group, which lists the permanent expulsion of Jews and Romanis from Eastern Europe among its highest priorities. “In my eyes, the economic crisis [has led to] a huge moral crisis,” Mundruczó says. “The society has become motivated by lots of fear, and those fears are not really very helpful for minorities, and refugees, and those elements. So racism and chauvinism are very much on the rise as we are facing those questions and problems.”

Proton Cinema

White God’s title is a nod to American director Sam Fuller’s similarly themed 1982 film White Dog—which Mundruczó saw after his own movie had already been completed, but whose philosophical underpinnings he enthusiastically embraced. Mundruczó’s greatest inspiration, though, comes from South African author J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, in which a shamed college professor retreats to the countryside and takes on a position at a small veterinary clinic, which he discovers exists primarily to euthanize unwanted street dogs. Like White God, Coetzee’s novel traces the subterranean networks that link the mass extermination of neglected South African strays, and the looming specters of ethnic cleansing and mounting political extremism that have plagued the region.

The film also draws parallels between social attitudes condoning the routine abuse and extermination of domesticated animals, and the embedded institutional prejudices which allow racism and other forms of structural inequality to persist. “That first time in the dog park,” Mundruczó recalls, “I said, ‘Such a shame!’ I just looked around, and I watched the dogs’ eyes behind the fences, and I said, ‘I really would like to talk about that … I don’t want to live in a world where dogs have no rights.’ So of course this is about human rights and animal rights.”

The “mutt tax” and subsequent confinement, starvation, abuse and ultimately, extermination of mixed-breed animals in White God, in one sense, is an obvious metaphor—socially marginalized people are often crassly compared to animals to justify their mistreatment, and the concept of ethnic “purity” is the bread and butter of any toxic nationalist movement.

More to the point, though, it was very nearly a reality in Hungary. Though it was ultimately struck down, a proposed law in Budapest, very similar to the one in the film, would have effectively consigned almost all of the city’s mixedbreed dogs to kill shelters. What White God leaves out is that a similar tax, though slightly less prohibitive, would have been applied to “foreign” purebreds as well. Basically, the only dogs not subject to taxation would have been purebred dogs of a breed historically traceable to Hungary, a bizarre and chilling stipulation considering Hungary’s recent groundswell of politi cized racial antipathy.

Naturally, the genocidal extermination of “impure” housepets, and actual, human genocide can’t be compared in terms of moral equivalency. What’s disturbing in this scenario is the deeper pathos it suggests—the extreme devaluation of individual lives for the sake of an abstract ideal. It’s hard to imagine a more poignant symbol of the human wreckage caused by the quest for ethnic purity than the execution of thousands of beloved pet dogs as an enforced gesture of national solidarity. There is a singularly grotesque vulgarity in extending such notions of national purity to creatures who aren’t even cap- able of having political consciousness.

Mundruczó sees these parallels in terms of treachery and moral failure. “Dogs are universal,” He says, “Dogs are ‘human.’ Dogs are part of the human family. That’s the way it was for thousands and thousands of years, and then we betrayed them. And then they have, of course, anger. So they symbolize that anger for any minority who is kicked out of our family.”

It’s hard to come away from such a film without fully considering the relationship between human and animal cruelty, even outside the context of blatantly sinister totalitarianism. Even in more progressive parts of the world, most people think nothing of euthanizing domesticated animals for the sake of population control, public health, etc., and an eerily similar rationale tends to pervade public dialog regarding violence against human citizens. “Protecting the public welfare” can become a justification for just about any form of large-scale civil abuse, so long as a public majority is scared or hostile enough to allow it.

Mundruczó’s goal is to strip away the particularities of these threads of suffering and unify them into a single narrative that anyone can immediately identify with. “[Dogs] love humans more than humans themselves,” he observes, “and of course in this way, you can follow a story much more easily.”

This article was originally published on Guff.com © 2015 by Devon Ashby, reprinted with permission.