“White God” is a remarkable film directed by Kornell Mandruczo and written by Kata Weber; go and see it at once. Then ask yourself these questions: Who, or what is the White God? Are there other Gods in the film? What colors are they? And do we need them? Then watch it again. And only then read the rest of this review [spoiler alerts - this essay assumes you’ve seen the film].
There are lots of ways into the film: it’s a coming-of-age film starring a sulky adolescent girl; it’s a film about our love for - and our mistreatment of - dogs; it’s about the possibility of healing a world made out of an unimaginable totum of violence; it’s about art and authority; it’s about Hungarian history and identity; it’s about romantic nationalism in Liszt and Wagner … and more.
So a good way into this richness is by its title: “White God” - both words pointing to hugely problematic areas. Is it the whiteness of innocence and purity? Is it the whiteness of racism? Are the two the same? And are we looking at an authoritarian God? An “opium for the people”? Or the figure of transcendence, the name we give to whatever fills our existential void?
In this post, I’ll do what I did in when I interviewed the director and writer at the Central European Forum in Bratislava: take the main figures in turn and make the case for their Godness and their Whiteness. (There is a video of the interview here, in which Kornell and Kata add a great deal to the thoughts outlined below)
Who are the Gods?
Hagen - an obvious candidate, perhaps. He’s the dog that Lilli adopts. Unwanted by Lilli’s father, a mutt, a crossbreed, he is separated from his adoring mistress and rejected by comfortable human society, which starts him on the journey to violent, vengeful revolt. He eventually leads the mob of strays of Budapest in a bloodthirsty break-out. Hagen, in Norse myth and in Wagner’s ring, is the man who, for the love of power and to avenge his despised father, the dwarf Alberich, murders Siegfried for an opportunity to possess the elusive Ring - the magical object that offers unlimited power to whoever possesses it.
Hagen starts his revenge
When Hagen and his pack are in mid-rampage, we hear a TV news bulletin commenting that: “the most frightening thing about the dogs is that they’re no longer animals … they are almost human”. Frightening indeed, when we know that these aren’t pampered pedigreed pets, but the forgotten, the stray, the unwanted who’ve been impounded and are about to be exterminated. If Hagen is God, he’s a frightening God of blood and vengeance.
The most frightening thing about the dogs ... is that they don't behave like dogs. (All the film clips are without sound - the result of an automatic stripping by YouTube due to copyright protection. The sound track is enormously important to the film. All the more reason to go and see it.)
So Hagen rises from dog to almost-human. He rises, he transcends dogness, but that’s it: he is not transcendence. And he’s not White - in the extraordinary scenes of the dog uprising, the camera often lingers on White Dogs to remind us that Hagen is not that. My vote goes to neither White nor God for Hagen. A figure of the oppressed, of the other, of the outsider, of the exploited and brutalised (there are some terrible scenes of the dog-fighting underworld) that rises and revolts … That may make him God to dogs, but not White God.
Hagen breaks out
How about Lilli’s father? He is, until his transformation, a cold and distant authority figure. He is estranged from the daughter that’s foisted on him and has bought her a bubble-blower. “I don’t want it. I’m no longer a child”, says Lilli, slapping him down. She reaches for his swipe card - the card that lets him into the slaughter room at the abattoir where he now works (they still call him “Professor” … he has slid in the world). That’s what she wants, not bubbles: she wants the keys to enter his world, the world of adults and permission. His 1-bed flat makes for uneasily close living, and he can’t take Lilli’s attachment to Hagen. His authority over her is disappearing; there are lots of figures who want a piece of her, from the dashing pianist to the orchestra conductor … and, of course, her ultimate equal, the dog. But this cold and distant God, the infantilising God, goes through a transformation. Lilli gets caught up in a drugs story. The father collects her from the police and shakes her hand: what you do with an equal, someone you’ve struck a deal with. Immediately afterwards, he breaks down in tears of self-pity: he has lost the child he loves; that child has hurt him. He offers her a new dog, which she turns down.
Shaking hands with the lost daughter
So if the father is a God, he is God the Father: distant, arbitrary, infantilising, and reluctant to offer autonomy to his creation. Is he White? Yes, in many ways. Early on, we see him having trouble with a blood-stain on his surgically white shirt. He loses his pedestal, perhaps never more than in the final scene, when he tries to ward off the angry horde with a flamethrower more usually used to burn skin off carcasses. So if he once was God and is White, I don’t think he’s the big White God of the film.
The father has a scene in which he hands Lilli over to another authority, the orchestra conductor and music teacher - another God, always sternly dressed in black. Lilli has been insubordinate; she has defied the male authority figure and run away; she is brought back by her father and needs to humiliate herself and to lie in order to be accepted back into the orchestra. The orchestra is a sort of social finishing school in the film: this is where the young learn their place and do something valuable together. Lilli is second trumpet. The conductor is a fierce old God, even if he does move his charges to produce music of real beauty.
The conductor’s most “White God” moment comes when he disciplines the class for having failed to attend a performance of Tannhauser. Lilli - diminutive of the eponymous, idealised, virginal Woman of Tannhauser - was out partying. She was trying to enter the other world of semi-adulthood where the Venus-like Trixie, her co-trumpeter, entwined with the handsome young pianist in the red-lit smoke of a Budapest dance-floor. The conductor wants the students to tell him what Tannhauser is about … they must know if they’ve thought it OK to miss the performance. Everyone is defiantly silent, until Lilli says: “It is about love, but you wouldn’t understand … you have a heart of stone”. So the conductor dismisses the class but keeps Lilli back. Reclining slouched in a school chair, fiddling with the phone between his splayed apart legs, he makes Lilli blow the horn til it’s just right. “That’s good …” he groans, as she eventually gets the right notes, does his will, obeys and produces the beauty he so wants from her.
Lilli plays her horn for the conductor
Another God, then, without a doubt. White? Yes, if we take it to be the white of white male privilege. But the white’s not all bad. It is also the “white”, the good, of bringing those young people together in their collective musical endeavour, in the creation of something beautiful. The final concert, the performance, is Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody number 2 against a kitsch romantic background set of mountains and castles. But while they may play at being Venus and Tannhauser in trendy bars at night, they need to start their real education in beauty with the basics, however poor taste that is to the modern sensitivity they might come to develop.
The final concert
The kitsch surroundings of the final concert If the Conductor is a sort of trainer for young people - the person who can get Lilli to perform on the horn to his taste and pleasure - Hagen has his equivalent in the dog-fight trainer. “The gypo” - as he’s known to the violent band of brutal thugs who fight their dogs for money in dark, blood-spattered pits - has just come out of jail. He wants back in the game. When he selects Hagen from a middle-man, he whispers: “You [unlike the other canine wrecks right here] still have a heart” - that is the condition for him to be turned into a killer of other dogs, for him to be trainable and turnable by “the gypo”.
Hagen gets chosen by the dog-fighter because he has a heart
What follows are some of the hardest scenes in the film. They describe how carefully administered punishment and reward, sometimes proffered by the same person wearing different masks, turns the loving Hagen into a killing animal, albeit one with a heart. It is all done for “gypo’s” profit, and Hagen is a wildly successful investment … until the power cut, which gives him his historic chance to start the revolution.
How to make a fighter
So the dog-trainer is a sadistic and manipulative God, and for a while all-powerful from Hagen’s point of view. If man created God in his image, then this in turn God creates dog in his: if you’ve been brutalised and crushed at the bottom of the heap, you may find little difficulty in brutalising others as you trample them on your way to personal salvation. “Do unto others as others have done unto you” makes for a a building momentum of violence as you move down the rungs of the status ladder. Like his middle-class counterpart, the dog-fight trainer is White as in White privilege. He may be Roma (just as in the bourgeois world of the film, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody is full of Roma themes), but he knows how to mistreat those below him. That’s what he’s been taught you do when you have power and the opportunity to make a quick buck. The conductor makes beauty from his pedestal … but the fight-trainer makes nothing of value. He creates the rage that will turn into Hagen’s rampage.
OK - that’s it with the seriously violent Gods of the film. But are there others - gentler, or perhaps just subtler? How about the keeper of the dog pound, for example? Middle-aged, maternal, wearily wise and offering no false comforts, the dogs spare her - just - during their bloodthirsty revolt. Just before the break-out, we see the impounded dogs penned up, fed, in their cages. Hagen looks up at the television in the corner, always on to keep the pack quiet. His ear has been caught by the Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2 being bashed on a piano by Tom the cat. No doubt Jerry will appear to add some trills. The fantasy cartoon feed does its bromidical work on the mutts. Hagen spots the keeper through a crack, where she is putting down an irretrievably ill terrier: “There. No more pain my little one. You’ll be better where you’re going. You’ll have no enemies…”
She has ultimate power over the mutts - until the revolution - and she discharges it firmly but kindly. She is a sort of social democratic God, the heart of a heartless world. But omnipotent, of course, she turns out not to be.
Hagen, the father, the conductor, the trainer and the keeper all have some claim to being God, and some have claim to being “White”, at least in its darker meanings. But how about Lilli herself?
Lilli wants to be Hagen’s equal at the same time as she wants to come of age. We repeatedly see her white-socked feet: when she cycles, the simple machinery of the pedal in-focus against the turmoil of the background; when her father slips on them some grown-up shoes in the intimacy of the single bedroom before the public concert; when she falls during the mutt-chase, and rises with a bloody gaping wound … Those white socks are her purity, her girlhood, her innocence, but also her autonomy, her cycling against an ever-changing background. But could she be God?
The final scene has Hagen and Lilli meeting again, Hagen backed up by his rag-tag army. Lilli throws him a stick to try to capture the old innocent relationship they had had. In this, she does to him what her father had done to her with the bubble-blowing toy. You can see Hagen’s blood-stained upper lip twitching at the slight. Will he attack her too?
Lilli fumbles backwards but when she has no further to go, she takes out her horn and plays the opening of the Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2. Somehow, that opening acknowledges all the pain the mutts have suffered, the darkness of the past, while opening up vistas to a common, magnificent future. Hagen lies down, followed by his army. The music that has been the vehicle of Lilli’s own painful entrance into adult society becomes the spirit that brings peace to the mutt-army. Lilli lies down with the army. And the father in the background, wielding his flamethrower like a deity in charge of the bellows of hell, puts it down and lies with them. The camera pans out to show an illuminated dome in which an army of the most violent of beasts lies together with the innocent girl. And so we seem to get to Isaiah’s prophecy “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”
But that’s not quite the end of it: the wolf and the lamb have been given a few moments of this heaven before the police snipers come. There will be no forgiveness for Hagen and his army. Mutts can’t really rise up and get away with it. So who now is the White God, and who the black dogs?
In a Q&A session that followed the screening of White God in Bratislava, Kornell Mandruczo was asked, in the context of the rise of populism and xenophobia in his native Hungary, what progressives ought to learn: to find our own Wagnerian myths, to refill the existential void of liberalism.