One never knows what to expect from Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó, whose mythic investigations of human nature have established him as one of the most singular voices of contemporary European cinema. From Johanna (05), a musical retelling of the Joan of Arc tale, featuring a drug addict turned sex saint, to Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project (10), an audacious revival of Shelley’s iconic monster-against-creator scenario, Mundruczó hasn’t ceased to challenge the taboos that lead to alienation and marginalization within society.

In White God, Mundruczó turns his camera on dogs, that dispossessed species which was once man’s best friend… Betrayed and abused by their human masters, the unwanted beasts of the film rise up and claim the respect that is due to them. Centered upon the struggle of a girl, Lili, to reunite with her beloved mixed-breed Hagen, White God is a symphony of emotion, at once succeeding as drama, revenge, and adventure film, in chronicling Hagen’s journey to rebellion. Mundruczó sets his moral tale against the backdrop of a mutating Eastern Europe, in which the tensions created by capitalist and nationalist tendencies reinforce the social divides.

Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at the 67th Cannes Film Festival, White God screens in New Directors/New Films on March 20 and 21, and opens theatrically on March 27. In an interview with Film Comment this week in New York, Mundruczó discussed his influences for White God, his admiration for J.M. Coetzee and Liszt, and his continual desire to echo social realities in his work.

White God

The movie starts with a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke: “Everything terrible is something that needs our love. Can you talk a bit about what this quote means to you and why you chose to open the movie with it?

I think this movie reflects what is the majority, and that the majority creates the minority. And also, we create our monsters, and we label them as monsters, street dogs, minorities, or what have you. And that Rilke quote goes against that idea. It’s revolutionary because it says we have the responsibility to be part of that system or not. That’s why I wanted to protest at the beginning and say what this movie is about.

The opening sequence where Lili is biking on the empty streets of Budapest, chased by the dogs, actually happens towards the end of the film. Starting with that sequence is also a way of announcing to your audience what the movie is really going to be about.

Yes, exactly. I put that sequence at the beginning of the film because I didn’t want to cheat the audience and let them think they would be watching a different kind of film. With the quote and that opening sequence, I am saying: “Okay, you must use your head when you watch this film.”

You’ve said before that in White God, you wanted to portray Eastern Europe in a state of transition. How do you think this transition is expressed in the film?

I’ve felt that over the past five to eight years, Eastern Europe and Hungary have completely changed, and I wanted to reflect that through the cinematic language of this film. That was the most important thing for me, to find the cinematic language, the theme and the story that would allow me to talk about that. I don’t believe in the Eastern European prototype anymore, because it just doesn’t reflect our reality; there is no slowness, no timelessness, no melancholy anymore. That’s just gone. It’s an ideal from the past, which comes from our authors. When I started out in the 2000s, we weren’t too far from that reality, but now we are really far. I felt like you simply can’t tell the truth through that type of filmmaking anymore. That’s why the main task for me was to find a form, a cinematic language through which I could react.

White God

I think that what a lot of people have called the blending of genres in White God is actually your way of reacting, because it seems like reality itself is fragmented and can’t be contained in a single genre.

Totally. I think it really comes from reality, because there are remnants of the Soviet era all over Eastern Europe. I think that after the economic crisis, and after September 11, there’s been a huge moral crisis. And this new kind of cinema or cinematic language, and these new kinds of moral stories are important nowadays, because you can’t find your way in conservative art anymore. That’s my feeling as a person and it’s really rare to find movies that reflect on this.

White God was inspired by J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a novel set in post-apartheid South Africa, where dogs emerge as an important motif. You actually adapted the novel for the stage first and used many of the actors in White God. What is the relationship between the novel, the play, and the film?

I’ve had two major literary influences in the past years, which have really changed my thinking: one is Coetzee and the other is Vladimir Sorokin. Those writers really tell me a lot about my reality as an Eastern European, which is strange because one is almost a fantasy writer from Russia and the other one is a South African author. But I felt that Coetzee’s world and how he’s talking about exile, territory, racism, colonialism, and the redistribution of a country is my Eastern European reality, but at the same time, it’s so distant. He’s very close to the idea of the film of course, but not totally. I staged Disgrace, and I’ve read all of his books since then.

White God is like a silent film because of the dogs silence. They only express themselves through their eyes, and the camera confronts us with these looks.

Absolutely. That’s why we used the music, to create a silent movie. Of course they can’t speak in a human language, but they talk with their eyes. They can be with us, and they can give a lot of emotion. And in front of our cameras, they really did give emotion. I think they give more emotion somehow than the human characters. Everybody was really surprised, including me, by how strong those moments were. That’s the meaning of this movie. The dogs’ protest is in their eyes and their head and their strength to create and give their own emotions to us humans. There is a beautiful quote in the last Godard movie Goodbye to Language: “Humans don’t like themselves as much as dogs like humans.” This is so true. And that’s what you can feel in this movie.

And it’s not just that they are silent because they are animals, it’s as if they have been silenced by humans.

Yes, I agree.

White God

Speaking of looks, I think the dog-fighting scene is key. Hagen has been trained to kill and he does. But at the end, he stares at the dead dog and bends his head in shame. It’s a moment of moral understanding, Hagen’s recognition that he has lost his innocence.

Absolutely. In that moment, we give him an epiphany. He’s the most moral after his first killing. That’s really contradictory but it’s so true. Because then when we follow his thriller or horror journey, we understand his steps, because he can choose between good and bad, which is not something animals mostly do, but he represents our anger. So this is one of the most important moments in the film, and also one of the most difficult scenes to create. Of course no animals were harmed, and it was very difficult in the editing room to cover the playful happiness of the dogs. [Laughs] But in the end, it’s this idea that humans are the ones who create wild animals out of dogs, because dogs in themselves are close to humans, they are part of their families.

White God deals with Lili and Hagen’s parallel loss of innocence. Why was it important for you to have this mirror?

I felt from the very beginning that I needed a human protagonist, and that it needed to be a young woman, especially because in Eastern Europe women’s position in society is very different from the West. This kind of rebellious attitude is much more revolutionary, the way she keeps her innocence. But on the other hand, I need to have characters with dimension, not just “good” ones, so of course they make mistakes as well, as we all do. For me, her role and character development is more important than Hagen’s, because Hagen is a hero from the Forties: he’s clean and heroic, and you almost can’t have a human character like that anymore. But for her, there are hard questions that come with her age and the pressures of society, like “Okay, do I want to do good for myself, or for everybody else?”

You build a sense of frustration in the father’s character, who bears similarities to David Lurie in Disgrace. It’s as if he’s stuck, unable to exercise his authority the way he wants to. The conductor seems to have this frustration too.

Actually in a small country like Hungary, we all have this frustration as citizens. Maybe you wanted to conduct the New York Philharmonic, but instead you ended up conducting the Youth Orchestra in Budapest with the same level of talent. So of course you feel a great deal of frustration. Everybody feels like their life is not good enough, that they could be somebody else, somewhere else. And those characters are like that. The father was a professor in a University who was fired. So now he works in a slaughterhouse and the conductor is the same. He works with the children in an authoritarian way because he hates himself, not because he doesn’t like children. It’s easily recognized in Eastern Europe, although it might not be as simple to understand in the West why they are so rude. But I really like the father’s way because he’s learned his lesson somehow through this story. And yes, you could compare him to David Lurie.

It’s interesting how Sándor Zsótér who plays Lili’s father also played Lurie in your stage adaptation.

Yes, exactly. I mean the father is close to that character in one hand but on the other, it’s because Zsótér is a good actor. [Laughs] He’s actually a theater director.

White God

The dogs escape from the pound and their subsequent passage on the streets of Budapest is a cinematic tour de force. It’s not only technically impressive, it becomes an icon of revolution with Hagen leading the masses to freedom, almost in the vein of Eisenstein’s Strike. How did you conceive that sequence?

Yes, it’s very avant-garde and very Soviet. We watched Soviet propaganda movies, like Kuleshov and all that.

I think the music also emphasizes that.

Yes, absolutely. It was written using Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody,” but at the same time we were also inspired by Shostakovich’s symphonies, especially “Leningrad Symphony,” which is huge and heroic but also very aggressive and powerful. And that was the main influence, these early avant-garde Soviet movies, so Eisenstein, Kuleshov, all those authors. And of course we have some influence from Hitchcock’s Birds.

Yes, in the attack scene.

Even Jurassic Park inspired me sometimes. This was our childhood. You watched Soviet movies on the TV, but at the same time in the cinemas there were things like Blade Runner, Terminator, and Jurassic Park.

White God

You have a strong attachment to music both in your film and stage work. In White God, you use Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody as a leitmotif. In the final scene when Lili plays it on her trumpet to the dogs, the Rhapsody feels like a hymn to humanity, an invitation to a return to innocence and harmony. In this respect, it reminded me of the last scene of Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal, where music ends anarchy.

I saw Orchestra Rehearsal a long time ago so I don’t remember. But the “Hungarian Rhapsody” is really important to me. It was really difficult to work with because it’s so iconic in Hungary. Franz Liszt, who was German, traveled to Hungary and loved it so much he started to write pieces about freedom and about finding your identity with the minorities. This piece of music is about that. It’s about freedom, about minorities, about the revolution of minorities. Now, Hungarian Nationalists use it without any sort of freedom. So I really wanted to reclaim the music’s true spirit through its repetition. I think that at the beginning of the film, you simply don’t understand what it is and think they play it just to play it. But when the dogs attack the concert, you understand what this music is about, and also at the end, when Lili plays it on her trumpet. This motif is absolutely about how to be human, but it actually comes from the Brothers Grimm tale.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Yes, I felt this was really what music could do. To make peace through music is somehow to be human.

The music takes the dogs back to reality and their former innocence, like in a fairy tale. They’re back to being children.

Absolutely back to being children, but at the same time, the humans lie down as well. They want to be their equals.

White God

You’ve always made fable-like films. In one of your interviews, you say: “I couldn’t tell the story of a gypsy family in Hungary even if I wanted to. I think that if you make a sociological film, you move even farther away from the truth.

I believe that folktales and fables say more about our reality and life than realism can per say. But I’ve felt that way from the beginning. Of course I can watch a realist, minimalist movie, but I always have a sense of “Yes, but that’s journalism.” So what more can I understand from that movie that I don’t understand from a website or newspaper about a topic? Why are we making a film out of it? So I believe in making tales and dramas and tragedies in a Greek sense. With this form, you can be much freer as an audience member to find your way, and you get more than when you are under the pressure to understand and witness a social problem. That’s my feeling, but there also beautiful films made in that style.

Why do you think Eastern European audiences might need this mixture of realism and fantasy, which Emir Kusturica for instance so brilliantly achieves in his cinema?

I’ve never thought about this. But I think the question is whom you have solidarity for. So I think in Turkey or in Hungary or in Mexico, you will run with the dogs and it’s so simple. And if you are in Germany or France or whatever, it might be the opposite. It’s a question of perspective. It’s always a question of perspective, depending on where in the world you are watching from.