Director Kornél Mundruczó and animal trainer Teresa Miller on White God, aesthetic approach, street dogs, and the importance of “Hungarian Rhapsody.” Read another animal trainer interview in our ebook on Kelly Reichardt.
When Hungarian writer-director Kornél Mundruczó decided he wanted to make a film about and starring street dogs, without CGI, it seemed unthinkable. At the Sundance Film Festival in January, he recalled, “Everybody thought it’s impossible, [saying], ‘Kornél, forget about this movie’.” But after meeting American Animal Trainer Teresa Miller, this daunting task suddenly seemed within grasp. Their collaboration eventually led to the remarkable film White God, which premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, winning its top prize, as well as the lesser known Palme Dog award, for the best dog in a film at the festival. It also screened in the Spotlight section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
White God tells the story of a mixed breed street dog, Hagen (Body), and his teenage owner Lili (Zsófia Psotta), who get separated when Lili’s divorced mother takes a trip, forcing her to temporarily live with her father (Sándor Zsótér) who doesn’t want a dog in his house. The Budapest they live in is unfriendly towards dogs. When Lili’s father forces her to abandon Hagen, he gets tossed between a series of crueler and crueler human oppressors, until he finally snaps, becomes vicious towards humans, and leads his fellow oppressed dogs in an uprising against the humans. Meanwhile, Lili, a trumpet player, feels lost and alone, left to navigate a world she doesn’t fit into without her one friend and companion, Hagen. It’s a heartbreaking and thrilling story, of friendship and injustice, told with formal mastery and old-fashioned romanticism.
Part of what made the film possible is that the way Teresa Miller trains dogs is unconventional. She doesn’t bark orders or give commands. In fact, her approach is the polar opposite of the owner-dog relationship we see derided in the movie when Lili and Hagen sit on a hill in a city park together, watching an owner yell at his dog to repeatedly sit and lie down, without reprieve; Lili promises to never torture Hagen like that. Miller talks to the dogs gently and in full sentences, offering suggestions, like “Why don’t you walk over there?” This gives the dogs the chance to behave and react like dogs, looking from side to side, and in effect, give a realistic performance. It’s Miller’s patience and diligence that allows the film’s lead, played by the mixed breed street dog Body, to give a performance that feels so realistic and is so compelling to watch. Miller allows him to behave like a dog and react to the situation.
Teresa Miller spent five months training the dogs — the film features at least a hundred of them — in the U.S. prior to shooting, while they were still in the process of finding the dog that would play the film’s lead, Hagen. They needed a dog that was distinct enough that he would stand out in a large group of dogs — there are many scenes featuring a large assembly of dogs — and Kornél Mundruczó wanted to use real street dogs, further complicating the matter. They looked at many dogs, until they found one that they felt was both right for the part and distinct enough to carry the film. For Miller, training Body, the dog that played Hagen, was especially challenging, as she had never trained a dog that would have to change on a dime in a film, from a sweet and loving dog to a vicious, villainous dog; usually it’s just one or the other.
Although the film is about a dog uprising, Kornél Mundruczó is quick to point out that he uses the dogs as “a metaphor for our society, [for] how our majority handles minorities. The dogs, especially street dogs, symbolize something about our contemporary world, mirroring us.” Both Mundruczó and Miller are fascinated by the similarities between the empathic qualities of dogs and humans and the strong bond between dogs and their human owners.The dogs, especially street dogs, symbolize something about our contemporary world, mirroring us.Click To Tweet
“Dogs are the only ones that technically really want to please man,” Teresa Miller explained. “All other animals are animals doing animal things, but [dogs] have a genuine desire to want to be loved. They need it. Even cats don’t need it. That’s what’s so heartbreaking about Lili being torn away from [Hagen]. She’s from a broken family. She doesn’t fit in with the younger kids. She doesn’t fit in with the older kids. She doesn’t have any friends. Everything is just against this kid, and all she has is the love of her dog, who is everything to her, and she loses that. It’s just heartbreaking to her. I’ve heard more people just compliment the scene in the car where she’s crying, and the dog is trying to get to her through the window, and she can’t open the door. She can’t get to him. I get chills now [thinking about it]. It was just gripping. You just felt so bad for both of them. That’s all they knew; they just knew each other.”
“In the new Godard film, Goodbye to Language, ” Kornél Mundruczó added, “There’s a sentence, ‘The humans do not love themselves as much as the dogs love humans,’ and it’s so meaningful and so true. They really trust us, and we don’t do anything for them.”
Mundruczó also noted that dogs that come from good, well-educated families, are very similar to five-year-old children: “They have their own rights, and they even don’t know they are dogs. They are just part of the family — the Harry Potter of the family.” It’s for this reason that Mundruczó felt the height of the camera was the most important directorial choice: he wanted to capture the child-like innocence of the dog’s perspective by shooting from the height of the dogs in the scenes involving Hagen.
In North America, colonies of street dogs, like the one that Hagen becomes a part of in the film once he’s left to fend for himself, aren’t commonplace. But in poorer, developing countries — like Mexico and some in Eastern Europe — they’re a reality. To prepare for the film, Mundruczó and Miller thoroughly researched the lives of street dogs around the world. In a documentary about Mexican street dogs, they learned that the dogs had trained themselves to obey traffic lights — something that was incorporated into the film. In Moscow, the dogs had learned how to use the metro. Miller noted, “These dogs learn to travel. They’ll get on the tram. And you’ll see people just reading. They’re used to it. These street dogs just run loose. We don’t have that a lot here.” Learning the skills for living in a city then became part of the narrative of Hagen’s survival story once he’s abandoned in White God.
“I would like to create something that’s visually unique that you’ve never watched before. This is very much the spirit of the cinema,” mused Mundruczó. “If you watch a Kurosawa movie, a Kubrick movie, then there are unique images.” One of the challenges he faced was finding a way to make each of the scenes where the dogs gathered together in a large group memorable. In the scene where the dogs flee the pound where they’ve been captured and imprisoned, the production design team added water on the ground at the entrance, creating a large puddle, in order to create a new image: it’s an absolutely visually dazzling scene. As they make their escape, the dogs kick up the water in the puddle, making it all the more cathartic.I would like to create something that’s visually unique that you’ve never watched before.Click To Tweet
But perhaps the most iconic image of the film is its first image, of Lili riding her bike in an abandoned city, only to be suddenly followed by a large pack of dogs, chasing after her at full speed. The film actually starts in the middle of the story and then we back-track to the beginning. “One of the first, main images in my head was the opening image,” said Mundruczó, “I had this [idea of] classicism, this Viennese classicism, from the monarchy time of Budapest, [the] Habsburg Monarchy time. And the dogs are together, how they come together — it’s a really surrealistic image somehow. When you watch those buildings, which is the ratios, which is the classical minded: all the buildings have a soul, all dogs have a soul. This is a huge contrast, and a huge fight, and a huge contradiction in between. That was one of my one main images that I really wanted to create. This is also why I put it iconically at the beginning of the movie.”
Using Liszt’s famous “Hungarian Rhapsody” to bookend the film — Lili plays it with her orchestra at the beginning, and then plays the melody solo on her trumpet, at the end — was also a crucial part of creating the romanticism of the film and helping to develop its political message. The themes from the piece also crop up in the film’s score by Asher Goldschmidt.All the buildings have a soul. All dogs have a soul.Click To Tweet
“The soul of Liszt,” said Mundruczó, “is really, he’s creating this piece of music, with lots of solidarity. He was against the Habsburg idea. He identified himself as Hungarian, but he was not. He was German. But he was living in Budapest. He wanted to be a rebel, as Hungarians are against the system. He’s writing this music because of that. At the same time, slowly, he became part of the Hungarian nationalism — this piece of music, which is totally not about that.”
“That’s why I use it,” he continued. “Because how they play it, at the beginning [of the film], especially with this authoritarian conductor, it’s quite empty. It means nothing. But if you combine it with the running of the dogs [in rebellion], then you feel that’s what this music is really about. At the end, when she’s [Lili] trumpeting out the main melody of it [to the dogs, to calm them in solidarity], you understand what this piece is really about.”
“We have an original score composed by Asher Goldschmidt, who is an Israeli and Hungarian guy — very young, like mid-30s and a newcomer. This was his first feature. He did really well. I think he’s a really talented composer. His music is really part of this world inside the movie. He used lots of the harmony from Liszt, [trying to not stray] too far [from] the main idea. Liszt, if you play it well, is really romantic. It can be easily sentimental, but the main intention was romanticism. It’s the same like with Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff and those composers: if you play it in a soft, too sugary way, then it’s sentimentalism. But if you have a real romantic attitude, then it can be very strong. This movie is also a romantic movie, in the ancient meaning of the word, like Byron.”
Like Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody,” when done right, White God is moving, heart-breaking, and rousing, but never sentimental. Although the story of the dog’s rebellion is an allegorical one, the heart of the film lies in the deep bond between Lili and Hagen, a bond of love and understanding that is stronger than any hatred or fury. And that is romantic but never drippy. It’s also a bond that every dog owner will recognize immediately.
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