At some point, usually somewhere in high school, most Americans at least hear about The Jungle. And though they tend to get over it soon enough, most of them are shocked by Upton Sinclair’s depictions of the unsanitary conditions and animal cruelty. That’s all well and good, but Sinclair was really trying to write about wage slavery and exploitation among Chicago’s poor and immigrant workers. To this day I know more about the living conditions of the pig that ended up in pieces under the meat counter at Whole Foods than I do about those of the people who picked the apples I buy two aisles over. It’s a simple fact: we as a society care more about animals than we do about people.
And so it should come as no surprise that screenings of Fehér isten — subtitled in English as White God — are preceded by special warnings about the graphic content. We are reassured that not only was the animal action held to the same production standards behind the American Humane Association’s trademark “No Animals Were Harmed” slogan, but the filmmakers also worked to make sure that all the non-professional dogs involved were adopted. And still more people walk out in disgust over depictions of animal cruelty than do when seeing actual humans subjected to the same inhumane treatments on screen.
If writer/director Mundruczó Kornél decided to tell his story as an allegory with dogs because he thought people would be too shocked and horrified to see the way immigrant and “mongrel” populations are treated in central Europe depicted with human victims, it may have backfired. On the other hand, when the dogs do eventually fight back the remaining audience may still sympathize with them in a way they might not for a small army or racial or ethnic minorities rampaging through the streets of Budapest.
Fehér isten has drawn comparisons with The Birds in the scenes where hundreds of feral dogs have driven the humans off, but it’s closer to a modern fast-zombie movie. The dog pack even symbolizes the same ravenous, swarming masses of “outsiders” that the zombies in 28 Days Later evoke. The difference here is that we spend much of the film following one particular dog on its journey of abuse from beloved pet to rebellion leader.
The beautiful golden retriever Hagen comes with 13-year-old Lili (Psotta Zsófia) when her mother leaves her with her father, Dániel (Zsótér Sándor) for the summer. Her father doesn’t want to pay the “mongrel” registration fee — paralleling discriminatory measures against immigrant populations gaining ground in many central European states — or deal with the hassle from his neighbors, so he leaves Hagen under a highway overpass. Hagen wanders, chased by people who see him as a pest on the order of a street rat. He falls in with a man who trains him for dogfighting, only to escape into a concentration camp of an animal shelter.
But recasting the oppressed immigrant and minority populations as a pack of feral dogs might help maintain an audience’s affection for them, it comes with one critical flaw. No matter how they rebel, the dog pack is not a culture. This is not The Planet of the Apes, where one species takes over after humanity’s failure; these dogs are motivated only by destruction and revenge. We can feel pity for their abuse — and by extension for the people they represent — but it leads to no real respect for them as a culture to be engaged with on the same level as our own.
And in the long run this kind of allegory can raise awareness, but won’t help us actually solve the problems it highlights. We may now fear retribution for the way we’ve mistreated this population — indeed, look at how antebellum American whites feared slave uprisings, or the way we still fear black activism today — but we still won’t value them and their culture if we see them as nothing more than a roiling mass that every so often gives rise to a rampaging mob. To avoid mistreatment — whether of animals or of people — merely because it may some day come back to bite us is a poor moral code. But maybe we’re so far down that ladder that even appealing to a slightly less narrow self-interest is still a step up.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.