White God - it's dog eat dog, even for a canine
Social issues in a fast-changing Europe are explored from a canine point of view
On the big screen, he's by turns tender and savage - an action star who also can pull off the sensitive moments. In the flesh, the lead actor in the new Hungarian thriller White God is more of the strong, silent type. He barely makes a sound as he's led into the living room of a publicist's rental house.
His name is Bodie, and he's a three-year-old Labrador mixed with Shar-Pei and a little bit of hound.
Bodie is the break-out sensation of White God, doubling with littermate Luke in the role of Hagen, the adored rescue dog of a 13-year-old schoolgirl who is forced out on the streets when she goes to live with her estranged father.
Despite his resourcefulness, Hagen soon is passed between a string of abusive owners, and becomes a fighting dog. He escapes, only to land back in the pound, just another unwanted mixed-breed canine waiting to be put down. Only this time Hagen is a trained killer, and all hell is about to break loose.
The film, directed by Kornel Mundruczo, layers a parable about society's rejects over a coming-of-age story over an old-fashioned vigilante movie. Only, instead of Charles Bronson and a shotgun, it's a pack of 280 wild dogs, ripping through the cobbled streets of Budapest with a thirst for revenge.
It's The Incredible Journey meets Cujo.
"It's a dog movie, but it's not about dogs," says Mundruczo, who decisively ignored all sane advice for making a feature film: no animals, no children. Instead, he shunned CGI, which is almost anathema in the digital era. He began developing the idea for the film while adapting a play based on South African writer J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace.
The title White God derives from his writings, the director says: "It's a Coetzee idea. In his universe, we are always colonising the whole world, and he opens another perspective."
Although he acknowledges the connection to Sam Fuller's controversial film White Dog, with which his film shares powerful similarities, Mundruczo wasn't trying to be obvious. "It was a questioning title," he says. "I wasn't going to call it 'Underdogs' or 'Street Dogs' or whatever."
To prepare the actors of the earlier theatre production, who played dogs onstage, the director took them to a dog pound. "I felt such shame," he recalls.
The volume of mutts loose on the streets or confined and euthanised in the pounds stood out as a metaphor for the filmmaker. He suggested parallels to the resurgence of antipathy towards immigrant and ethnic communities across Europe. "These questions are really back, like the freaks from Frankenstein, our monsters are back," he says.
The film also was meant to comment on rapid changes across Eastern Europe. "There is no longer this kind of timeless melancholy any more, but just really fast capitalism," Mundruczo says.
The structure of the film is such that audiences can contemplate these deeper issues as they wish. Mundruczo, who had never made an action film before, took on the heady challenge of creating a world as seen from the canine point of view. "They are running and we are close to them, and we watch their eyes and watch their emotions," he says. "That's what we never watch when we are living in a city. This is a movie where the main actor doesn't talk through the whole thing. I had to bring it down low to the dog's perspective."
Getting the animals in gear took months of preparation. When Teresa Ann Miller, Bodie's Los Angeles-based owner and trainer, found Bodie and Luke on the internet as nine-month-olds, they "didn't know how to walk on a leash". Her father, "the master of the villain dog movies", was animal trainer Karl Lewis Miller, who worked on Cujo, The Doberman Gang and Fuller's White Dog, to which White God seems to allude, although Mundruczo only saw it after he made his film.
As Miller explains it, teaching Bodie how to portray a vicious killer isn't unlike rehearsing an actor. "He's not trying to kill us," she says. "It's like two kids teasing each other. What you do is build up his confidence to challenge me or the trainer. It's very specific, the way it's set up. It takes some time, though. It's not done in an aggressive way."
The other dogs were mostly discovered at Budapest pounds. "We wanted a group of dogs that were easy-going and who would not cause a ruckus," says Miller, who observed a transformation in the animals as they worked on camera. "They were these cowering little pets that had been discarded. And now they have confidence and purpose."
Mundruczo sounds as if he has reinvented his craft as well. "I wanted to create a new Budapest image," he says. "At the same time, I really like Kurosawa and Kubrick. Always, you feel scale."
His movie is dedicated to Hungarian master Miklos Jancso, who died last year, whose classics such as The Red and the White and Red Psalm are cornerstones of Hungary's cinematic history. The first film, made in 1967, is known for iconic, overhead battlefield shots of the Russian civil war, scenes whose style White God emulates. "We have a huge tradition as Hungarian filmmakers," Mundruczo says. "He used parables. Metaphors. It's part of our blood."
The Washington Post
White God is on limited release at Broadway Cinematheque, Yau Ma Tei from April 30