“White God”: More Than a Whiff of Transcendence

“White God”: More Than a Whiff of Transcendence April 24, 2015

Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary

Dog lovers who watch this exceptional film should arrange to have a cat-loving designated driver take them home. If not, they may weep all the way home, as I did. The Hungarian film, The White God, is an extraordinary thriller from Hungarian writer-director, Kornél Mundruczó. It is not an upbeat dog film, but a visceral drama of love, cruelty, and redemption. Brilliant is not too strong of a word to describe its cinematography and its concepts.

White God

White God is rated R for violence and, I suppose, bad language, which appears in the subtitles. The film depicts some graphic violence. However, these scenes are no surprise. You may feel their force by only listening. Those sensitive to violent scenes (such as myself) may close their eyes and still feel the force of the film. But unlike many recent films, none of the grisly shots is without purpose. They rather hinge the plot.

The human protagonist is brilliantly played by Zsófia Psotta. Lili, a young teenager, is a child of divorce. She is taken by her mother to her father’s apartment in Budapest for the summer. Lili is cold toward him. To her father’s disgust, Lili has brought Hagen, a large, brown, mixed-breed dog. Daniel (well-played by Sándor Zsótér) was a professor who has been reduced to working in a slaughterhouse. No dog lover, he refuses to pay the fee for mixed-breed dogs. The mixed breeds are the persecuted minority, the least of the dogs, and they are the stars of the film.

During a car ride, Lili and her father argue about Hagen. The angry father stops the car and shoves Hagen out to the side of the road. Devastated by losing her best friend, Lili searches passionately for her dog, but in vain.

After Hagen hits the streets, two parallel plots unfold until they converge in the final minutes. In the first narrative, after the shock wears off, Hagen adapts to being homeless, finding solace by befriending a terrier mix companion who leads him to a pack of dogs living in abandoned buildings. When the dog catchers arrive, he and his little friend escape. Hagen is saved by a homeless man. But he is no friend, since he sells him to a middleman who, in turn, sells Hagen to a dog fighter—a man who tries to rip the goodness from Hagen’s heart. An expert in evil designs, he makes Hagen vicious through drugs, conditioning, and torture. When this slave master deems him fit, Hagen is pitted in the ring against another dog and wins. The wounded Hagen escapes, only to be caught and brought to the dog pound.

Seeing that Hagen is limping, the director judges that he will not be adopted. The director put a dog to death as Hagen watches. When people come to select pets, Hagen bites a young woman. He is taken by a guard back to the larger pen of strays. But Hagen is no longer a docile and loveable mutt. He is a trained killer. Hagen kills the guard, thus leaving the gate open. This allows hundreds of mixed breed dogs to pour out as a pack of liberated prisoners. Hagen is their leader. The dogs occupy the city, causing a state of emergency. They do not kill people; they terrify and intimidate. Skirmishes between man and beast leave many dogs dead, but unbowed. The pack still roams and intimidates.

In a parallel plot, the disconsolate Lili is trying to regroup by playing trumpet with a youth orchestra. Still distraught, she looks for consolation by hanging out with wrong crowd at a raucous dance hall. She passes out and is arrested the next morning. After Lili’s father bails her out, he shows more tenderness toward her and even remorse about banishing Hagen.

Both plots merge when Lili’s orchestra performs in a concert hall, with her father in attendance. As yet, no one knows of the rebellion. The decorum is broken when the pack of dogs surrounds the auditorium, barking insistently and jumping against the doors and windows.

Amidst the panic, Lili breaks her way out of the crowd and borrows a bicycle to hunt for Hagen. She pedals down disserted streets in her pursuit. In a breathtaking scene, the apocalyptic pack of dogs closes in behind her. (No special effects were used for any footage.) They rush past, knocking her off her bicycle. Undaunted, she continues to ride.

Before knowing Lili’s fate, we see that the dogs have returned to avenge their enemies. Hagen finds the man who sold him into slavery and kills him. The dog fighter is punished by a gruesome death as well. The fury of revenge is gripping.

White God’s final scene is a charged mixture of suspense, danger, and yearning. It would be cruel to spoil it for anyone, but I can say this. Lilli hurries to her father’s work, afraid that the dogs may have harmed him. Once there, she is confronted by Hagen, backed by his army. Their eyes meet for the first time since her father forced them to part. Suddenly rushing in, the father brandishes a makeshift fire-thrower to protect his daughter. A frightened but courageous Lili then pulls a trumpet from her backpack and begins to play. Then magic happens, magic that I never expected, but which I will always remember.

This scene brings together man, dog, love, hate, and hope for reconciliation, giving us more than a whiff of transcendence. It provokes us to consider man’s inhumanity to dogs and the threat that dogs pose to people. Their jaws and teeth were designed for hunting and eating flesh. Many dogs are strong, fast, and agile. If a large one turns on us, we look for a weapon, since we are not their match. But dogs are rarely aggressors, unless they are neglected or made vicious by those more vicious. A dog is more likely to defend the owner who just beat her. What, then, is our accord with dogs?

Dogs and people share in the matter, meaning, and mortality of creation. Although the natural bond between humans and animals was compromised long ago, people have managed to domesticate dogs. Selectively bred canines now perform divergent tasks: pulling sleds, herding sheep, catching fowl, guarding humans, and providing companionship.

Dogs have taken up their lot with us and we with them. Mortals display both our greatness and wretchedness in our treatment of dogs. We care for them, use them for noble purposes—police dogs, guide dogs and therapy pets. And we cruelly exploit them. Or we buy them and then ignore them, despite their need for companionship. An ancient text brings this into focus.

The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel (Proverbs 12:10).

We are as gods to dogs—white gods in the case of this film. How we treat dogs—and the rest of creation—reflects what kind of people we are and what kind of God we believe in.

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