Jamie Bircoll: The power politics of the movie camera

Monday, September 21, 2015 - 5:47pm

The Hungarian film “White God” begins with an aerial shot of a vast and empty city. The only figure, barely visible, rides a bike. The silence is unnerving — where is everyone? It’s the setup for some kind of fairytale or post-apocalyptic story of survival. The camera moves in; the figure is a teenage girl, probably 13 years old. She rides across a bridge into the heart of Budapest as the wind blows gently. The camera zooms onto the pedals of the bike, capturing her cycling in slow motion — movement, forward progress. But then an orchestra erupts in symphonic malaise. The girl turns to see a deluge of wild dogs, 250 of them, hustling down the street, growling, angry. They are gaining on her. As the girl passes an intersection, the camera rests barely a foot off the ground as it captures the flood of dogs sprint by. Cut to black. Director Kornel Mundruczo has moved us from the sky to the ground; we have fallen from grace.

This two-and-a-half-minute sequence is perhaps the best in film I’ve seen this year. It tells us most everything we need to know — not so much about the story itself, but about the emotional stakes in which we are about to invest ourselves. Mundruczo’s film is indeed a fairytale, a particularly sad one at that — a tale of lost innocence and oppression and anger, devoid of a happy ending.

“White God,” which recently dropped on Netflix, recounts the tale of Hagen, a mixed-breed dog, as he devolves from a loving house pet into a killer, transformed by a society that sees him as a dirty less-than. The Hungarian government has laws against non-purebred animals, and Hagen’s owner, Lili, the cyclist, is forced to give him up to the streets. The metaphor becomes quite clear; Hagen and other mutts represent the lower class shunned by society. Eventually, Hagen, about to be put down by the pound, leads the other impounded dogs to rise up against their oppressors. They take the city, killing those who have abused them.

If the film sounds like “Battleship Potemkin” by way of “Babe: Pig in the City,” it is. The premise may be a bit ridiculous and the allegory rather heavy-handed, but the film generally works as a series of dreamlike images, effectively staged and featuring some of the best acting by animals I’ve ever seen. In addition, it draws its principle strength in how Mundruczo frames the characters and animals.

If we view a camera as a pair of eyes — our eyes — then when the camera looks down at something, a dog for example, the dog has no power because we stand above it, claiming positional dominance. However, if the camera points upward at the dog, then the dog claims the power— we feel its size overpowering us. This is really the one that Mundruczo expresses with the opening sequence: the audience begins with power, which diminishes by the end, trampled by the stampede.

Mundruczo, for the first two-thirds of the film, slowly but surely moves the camera lower and lower in framing Hagen. By the time Hagen has broken, tapped into his heart of darkness at the behest of a number of cruel owners (among them a dog fighter who pounds the animal into a fighting machine), the camera sits beneath him. He takes the power from the audience, the rest of society that has beat him down, and fights back.

The position of the camera further suggests where Mundruczo expects society to go to combat the lack of regard for the lesser class: are we to ascend higher and see the world for what it truly is or descend into the dirt? We really only have two options: higher or lower, better or worse.

“White God” parallels another recent film about class strug. Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” operates on a similar, though more nuanced, level about the world, but instead contracts the Universe into the closed walls of a train. In a train that shelters the only survivors of a devastating global freeze, there isn’t really space to move higher or lower, so instead it remains at the eye level of Curtis, the leader of the rebellion. The camera, then, can only move in a lateral direction: forward or backward, forward, being to the front of the train, where the upper classes reside, and the back, with the leftover lower class.

Like the camera, Curtis and the rebellion can only move forward or backward, progress toward the front to make the engine fall back in line, taking the oppression to which they have become accustomed. Joon-ho mirrors this limited thinking through Curtis’s decision-making, as he hesitates to move backward or forward, ultimately choosing to move forward, always at the cost of friends that have served as his conscience and grounded him. This way of staging, forward or backward, right or left, always results in death and destruction; the push forward, even if it seems just, is still just as costly, physically and through the goodness of the minds of those bodies.

But then, at almost 94 minutes in, Joon-ho introduces a third direction: out. As Namgoong, the security specialist, explains that he does not want to take the engine but to break outside of the train, the camera very deliberately and slowly pivots a full 90 degrees, the only time it has moved in this fashion. Suddenly, this space is not one dimensional; Curtis can move forward or backward and perpetuate the cycle of violence, or he can end it completely by breaking outside. And it is this third option that Curtis ultimately chooses, opting to derail the train, killing all but two children, who are able to begin society anew, untainted by the adults that formed it.

Joon-ho ends his saga on an optimistic note: a shot of a polar bear, thought to be extinct, suggesting that the children will survive and perhaps thrive. For Mundruczo, the ending is less positive. He takes us back to the sky for a shot of all of the dogs, Lili and her father lying on the ground, humans nearly indistinguishable from the dogs. The police will soon come, and the dogs will likely be shot. For a moment, there is peace and similarity and understanding, but not for much longer.

And so we see a difference in ideology between these two directors. Joon-ho has taken us forward and backwards, only to abandon the two altogether and move outside. Mundruczo has taken us up and down and then back up to see the world with newfound awareness. Whichever is correct will have to be left to the viewer, but it is clear that both directors have used their cameras to deliver a message: we have shown you the world, now what will you do about it?