This post contains spoilers.
The opening sequence of Kornél Mundruczó’s White God features a young girl frantically cycling through Budapest city centre, pursued by a large pack of dogs. Like Hitchcock’s birds, the hounds seem intent on causing chaos, driven to violent means for reasons we do not yet know. White God is another in a long lineage of literary works in which animals serve an allegorical purpose; Hungary has faced increasing levels of racism in recent years, and the degradation of mixed-breed dogs in the film forms a fairly straight-forward parallel here. At White God’s core is the relationship between Lilla, a young girl, and her dog, Hagen. While Lilla loves Hagen unconditionally, her father’s worldview is rather different; irritated by the dog’s presence, and facing fines to keep the mutt in his house, he chooses instead to abandon it on the street.
Lilla, we learn, is a keen trumpeter, and frequently attends a youth orchestra. In fact, her life appears to consist of nothing other than her orchestra and her dog, along with the impact that these have on the relationship with her father. Her music is thus pitted directly against Hagen — it would seem that Lilla is being forced to make a choice between the two. She is temporarily thrown out of her orchestra for bringing Hagen to a rehearsal; after Hagen is abandoned, she skips an orchestral outing to Tannhäuser in order to look for him. Noting her absence from the Tannhäuser trip, the orchestra’s conductor grills Lilla on the opera’s subject matter: What is it about? Lilla replies pointedly that it is about love.
The tension between Hagen and Lilla’s music is never more evident than during the orchestra’s concert, which is interrupted by the pack of dogs previously rampaging the city. This climactic scene can be interpreted as a comment on the perceived cultural differences accompanying class and racial divides, those prejudices that fuel the discrimination that many have faced in Hungary. White, bourgeois, ‘high’ culture is here disturbed by the ‘low’, mixed-breed animals, whose place is considered to be not in the concert hall but out on the streets, or locked away in pounds, hidden, neither seen nor heard.
In the final scene of the film, Hagen advances on Lilla as her father stands nearby, readied with makeshift blowtorch in hand. Favouring the pacifistic approach, Lilla picks up her trumpet, which has been tellingly poking out the top of her backpack for much of the film, and begins to play. With a dozen or so notes of Wagner, Hagen and his army of bloodthirsty hounds are tamed, sinking slowly to the floor and lying dormant. While some may find it ham-fisted, this ending makes sense dramaturgically, foreshadowed as it is by many previous scenes, including one in which Lilla caringly trumpets Hagen to sleep. If love is the subject of Tannhäuser – and, while Wagner’s opera is more complex, we can assume that we are meant to share the view of the film’s protagonist on this matter – White God’s message seems to be that love conquers all.
But the most important word here is arguably not ‘love’, but ‘conquer’, for the relationship between Lilla and Hagen in the closing scene is rather lopsided. Although Lilla subsequently lowers herself to the floor, keen to be considered as an ‘equal’ to the dogs, this does not alter the fact that she is the tamer, while Hagen is the tamed. To claim that White God ends on an even note would therefore be erroneous, however positive and good-willed the film’s message is intended to be.
Even more problematic, though, is the music with which Lilla asserts control of the situation. The scene rather romanticises the power of Tannhäuser and its composer, an individual who has been accused of bludgeoning his audiences into submission, who is a vehement anti-Semite, who is a white male, who is a kingpin of European ‘high’ culture. Is Lilla’s taming act, then, not just another assertion of cultural dominance? Is Wagner not a musical embodiment of the White God archetype that Mundruczó’s film is rightly questioning?
‘White God’ was shown at the Ultimate Picture Palace on the 3rd and 7th March; for future film listings, please visit their website.