As if all this was not enough, it evolves into a surreal movie that is a mix of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, The Birds, Animal Farm, and Spartacus. Please be advised that from now on, you will be entering into a bizarro world that for the necessities of this piece will have to include spoilers and that will contain strange ideas that strangely enough will make perfect sense. There will also be a political dimension to everything discussed that will not take sides on the political spectrum but oddly enough, at least in my interpretation, give both sides their dues while at the same time criticizing them in equal measure.
Moreover, oddly enough animal lovers and rights activists who should be eating this up have jumped to quick and hasty conclusions and have claimed that the film portrays and represents animal cruelty, which is not the case, certainly not thematically nor in terms of filmmaking; to the careful and discerning eye, it becomes clear that evident care was taken to minimize any potential harm to the animals, while the trained stray dogs were, for the most part, adopted after filming. Be it as it may, you have been forewarned.
I first saw this movie about seven years ago. I do not really know why but I remember reading a favorable review of it. In fact, it had received generally good reviews and although it was an official selection and was sent for competition in the best foreign movie category at the Oscars, it was not nominated. It is one of those cases where it might have gone over the head of the Academy Award members and/or it might have been too bold and daring to promote and feature in that category.
The movie starts a bit like Danny Boyle’s zombie apocalypse 28 Days Later: In this case, a young girl with her trumpet dangling on her back is riding her bike through empty and deserted streets with hastily abandoned cars that have their doors wide open and without a soul anywhere in sight. Suddenly, out of nowhere and accompanied by an ominous score, she is being chased by a mob of angry and vicious dogs.
Flashback to where the same girl, our thirteen-year-old main character Lili is forced to spend the summer with her Dad, a divorced and solitary meat inspector who does not seem pleasant at first glance. Thank goodness she has Hagen, her dog, who is her faithful companion, but it becomes quickly apparent that neither her father, nor nosey and quarrelsome neighbors nor society at large have any type of feeling, affinity, or compassion for the creature. Dogs are seen as a nuisance, especially so-called common and ordinary half-breeds like Hagen whose designated place and fate seem to be the dog pound and animal shelter.
The difficult relationship Lili has with her father intensifies with the presence of the unwanted and disliked dog. As he is strongly opposed to the dog sleeping on the bed with them, he forces Hagen to sleep in the bathroom where he barks all night long robbing him of sleep and annoying the already annoyed neighbors. In a touching scene, Lili gets up at night, plays notes from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 that soothe and calm the distressed animal, and she crawls into the bathtub and falls asleep there. The next morning, a government official appears and wants the father to pay for a dog license. After this event, Lili takes Hagen to her orchestra rehearsal and hides him behind a door asking him to be quiet.
For the most part, he is until he recognizes the musical section with the string of notes that she usually plays for him on the trumpet, and he bursts out to her happily barking. This gets Lili into serious trouble with an ill-humored conductor who puts her on the spot and gets her to choose between the orchestra and the dog. Of course, she chooses the dog and leaves the orchestra without further ado.
Without going into too much detail in terms of plot, what happens next is that the father abandons Hagen to his fate, and the dog ends up going on a few adventures that become increasingly disturbing and difficult to watch. At first, he befriends a friendly stray dog, and they are chased by dog catchers, but then, he finds temporary refuge with a homeless guy who sells Hagen who ends up becoming a dogfighter.
His eventual trainer sees something special in this dog. Although the dog is meek and friendly, there is heart and determination behind this façade, and the trainer recognizes that potential. And in some of the most harrowing scenes of the movie, he begins to train Hagen for fighting purposes by torturing him, beating him, and injecting him with steroids. The practice by this trainer is undoubtedly animal cruelty of the cruelest type imaginable, but it is definitely not a view that the filmmaker endorses but rather something that he exposes. And it is done most skillfully as most of it is not shown; and yet, it still makes us shudder and want to close our eyes so that we do not see the horror occurring in front of us.
After Hagen’s and the trainer’s first successful fight, we see blood, but it is a bravura sleight of hand that turns playfighting into an apparently vicious and bloody battle between two dogs. In the following scene, Hagen suddenly realizes that he has killed an innocent fellow dog for no reason. The acting of the dog, the expression, and his demeanor are exemplary here, and we feel or assume that he has woken up from pain, trauma, and torpor and suddenly realizes what he has done. Hagen decides to escape this cruel and heartless underworld.
But this experience, however painful and traumatic, has also emboldened him. When he is eventually caught by the dog catchers, he suddenly starts a revolt, which turns into a full-scale revolution. Hagen attacks and kills various people at the animal shelter and frees his fellow stray dogs to embark upon the city. This part of the movie has hues of Spartacus but is also a nod to B-movies and westerns. It becomes the revenge of the canine as he tracks, hunts down, and brutally kills all those who have harmed and done him wrong, from the homeless person to the awful dog trainer. The last on the list is, yes you guessed it, her ex-owner’s meat-inspecting father.
This is the surreal part of the movie, which is also a jolting experience, basically The Birds but with dogs. Given the emotional connection we have with Hagen, this is not as silly as it may sound, but it does require a stretch of the imagination and might be a turn-off for more realistic-minded viewers. In an astounding set piece, the members of the orchestra are suddenly faced with various dogs staring and glaring down at them from the balcony. They all stop the music and flee in panic.
The final scene of the movie is the most moving and I would put it as one of the best endings I have ever seen, right on par with other masterpieces like Shawshank Redemption. Lili soon realizes that Hagen is leading his posse of rebellious dogs to kill her father. Yet, at this point, her father has had a change of heart. After his daughter had almost hit rock bottom by being arrested for drug possession – the drugs were somebody else’s and she was not going to use them herself – her father changes his tune and becomes more caring and attentive.
It could be seen as a handy plot device to rouse sympathy for an unsympathetic character but at the same time, it could also be the true nature and being of a person who changes for the better after experiencing intense turmoil, heartbreak, and suffering. Be it as it may, we end up not wanting him to die, and she tries her best to save him from the attacking mob.
The showdown and final scene happen in front of the slaughterhouse. She bravely faces the pack of dogs and tries to talk sense to its leader Hagen. He menaces her but she tries to win him over with soft and kind words. Does he recognize her? Can she re-awaken those feelings and moments of tenderness that they shared, those moments of innocent bliss together before the world went berserk? Will he ever forgive her?
Then, she pulls out her trumpet and starts playing the familiar motif of this film. What happens next still gives me goosebumps as I am writing this. We can see on Hagen’s expression and demeanor that he recognizes the melody and that powerful memories have been stirred and triggered deep inside of his being, and he then lies down. And with him, all the other dogs follow suit as the beautiful melody continues and lingers in the air. Moved by the spectacle and in awe and reverence, both daughter and father prostrate themselves in front of the dogs, and the movie ends.
This movie can be read and interpreted in different ways. The more straightforward interpretation would be to be kinder to animals and treat them with empathy, love, and respect. This message would easily resonate with pet owners, but it can be extended to society as a whole, which often views animals as inferior beings. It can also be further extended to using and abusing animals as food alongside criticism of the (over)consumption of meat. The graphic opening at the slaughterhouse and the symbolic ending at the same place certainly point in that direction.
In terms of political allegory, we could also consider a more communist and socialist interpretation in which the poor and downtrodden would rise and revolt against the bourgeoisie and take over control and power. There would be a state of anarchy, chaos, and destruction and a time of reckoning for a long history of abuse, exploitation, torture, and suffering.
Yet, if you replace the poor with the meek, which is a characteristic of Hagen, then we can even have biblical connotations of the meek finally inheriting the earth. It is, however, not done by turning the other cheek but with the sword, as Jesus himself has proclaimed. The dogs would be his disciples and soldiers breaking through ignorance and hatred and taking control of their lives. Put into the context of a more current perspective, this is a fight for freedom and liberty where the shackles of censorship, control, and manipulation would be taken off.
I admit that both views are wacky and extreme. Interestingly, they would condone violence and anarchy, and I oppose both. In my personal view, revolution founded on blood and destruction only fosters hatred as there is literally no love lost between both sides. This is the current political climate, which will not be resolved until negotiations, compromises and open dialogue from both sides are engaged and are taken seriously to bridge the differences, mend the hurts and misconceptions and find common ground.
And yet, and by all means and purposes, this is an excellent movie that can be enjoyed without becoming entangled in controversy as it showcases the love and bond between humans and animals, a message that will and should resonate with each being, first and foremost.