Beginning in 1940 with director Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich, there have been over 500 films about the Holocaust. Far too many to list, among some of the more memorable are: Diary of Anne Frank (1959,) Sophie’s Choice (1982,) Schindler’s List (1993,) Life is Beautiful (1999,) The Pianist (2002,) The Counterfeiters (2007,) The Boy in Striped Pajamas (2008,) and Son of Raul (2015). The recurring “Jewish Solution” theme has been embraced by hundreds of filmmakers both in America and abroad and, in my opinion, is a subject that should continue to be illuminated wherever and whenever filmmakers consider embarking on a new project.
Based on the best-selling Asher Kravitz’s novel The Jewish Dog, writer-director Lynn Roth begins her film Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog in 1930 Germany, with an upper-class German- Jewish family welcoming a litter of puppies. Joshua, the 10-year-old son, beautifully played by August Maturo, immediately bonds with one of the puppies and names him Kaleb. He and his sister Rachel (Viktória Stefanovszky) have lots of fun running through the spacious apartment with their dogs as cinematographer Gábor Szabó’s camera captures the interior of the apartment. The joy of the children scampering in an out of the rooms, laughing with delight, is augmented with the musical score by Wlad Marhulets, which supports the onscreen action throughout the film. There are murmurings that something is afoot with the Nazis. However, Samuel, the father played by (Ádám Porogi) doesn’t believe the threat is real and that it will pass. As Shoshanna, the mother, nicely played by Ayelet Zurer, walks through the streets, she sees a sign in a bakery shop reading NO DOGS – NO JEWS. Despite the telltale events, the family tries to live a normal life and celebrates Passover with prayers and singing. When it came time to hide the afikomen,* Josh becomes very creative and smears the matzoh with gravy so that Kaleb would sniff it out and he would get the reward. Those joyful days are quickly coming to an end and despite the urging of one of his friends to leave before it’s too late, Samuel still refuses to face the reality of what lies ahead, with that reality closing in. Rachel is expelled from school and under the Nuremberg Laws, it is now illegal for a Jew to own any animals and no German is allowed to work for a Jewish family. Samuel blesses Kaleb and gives him to their long-term housekeeper who is heartbroken that she can no longer work for them. Kaleb goes home with her, but not for long. He tears up the living room furniture and eventually runs away, surviving on the street with other abandoned dogs. He finds his way back to the house in which he was born, but that family has long since been taken away and sent to concentration camps. Through an interesting directorial device, we sometimes see flashbacks through the eyes of Kaleb, which are shown in black and white, cementing the bond between he and Joshua. Now a stray, the dog is eventually picked up and put into a pound where German SS dog trainers walk through the kennels looking for animals they can train. One of the officers, Ralph, brilliantly played by Ken Duken, whose character typifies the value system held by the Nazis. This seemingly gentle man sees the potential in Kaleb and thus begins the training which, among other things, is to sniff out Jewish hiding places. The irony that Kaleb becomes the best at finding such places will not be lost on you. Eventually Ralph and his dog are assigned to a concentration camp. The irony continues as a train arrives with Josh and his father. As they disembark, one of the officers pushes Joshua and Kaleb, recognizing the little boy, literally goes for the offending officer’s throat. Pulling out his pistol, the officer is ready to shoot the attacker, but Ralph, in an incredibly act of devotion, steps in front of his dog, saying, “You’ll have to shoot me first.” Do remember that heroic gesture. Aware that there is a bond between his dog and this little boy, Ralph offers him the job of feeding the animals warning him, “If you steal any food, you will be shot.” Our young man is pressured to steal food for the starving inmates. At first, he refuses, but eventually he begins to fill his pockets with morsels to bring back to the bunkhouse. Ralph catches him with the food and quietly says, “I told you, you would be shot if you steal any food.” This man, who was willing to take a bullet for his dog, takes out his pistol, cocks it, and points it at Joshua’s head, ready to pull the trigger. What ensues is unexpected as the story takes a fascinating turn. Joshua is rescued and struggles for the survival of he and his dog as they embark on a dangerous path to freedom. In many ways, Caleb is the star of this film and as he grows up, is played by five different delightful dogs.
Ross assembled an interesting but uneven international cast with some of the characters bordering on cut-outs and the acting amateurish. To her credit though, she chose to stay away from over-emphasing the horrors of concentration camp life but instead illuminated the dehumanization of people through the eyes of Joshua and his devoted dog. We quite clearly see the inhumane factor as it affected this one particular family but what speaks volumes, is the relationship between Joshua and Kaleb. It is through that lens that we get to see full throttle the unspeakable cost of the Holocaust as illuminated by the undying bond between a boy and his dog.
*The Afikomen is a piece of matzah that is hidden during the Passover seder. The child who finds it gets a reward – usually money.
“Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog”
Production: A Glass Half Full Media Release of JDOG Films
Distributor: FocusFox Studio
Release Date: Current
Where: Select Theatres Including: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Encino, Town Center;
Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena
Genre: Family Historical Drama,
Running Time: 93 Minutes