Though the film is billed as a family feature, it’s far from it.
Based on the award-winning and bestselling Israeli novel The Jewish Dog by Asher Kravitz, Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog recounts the history of the gradual eradication of Jewish life in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, as told through the bond between a boy and his German shepherd.
The 94-minute film, which opened May 28 at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township, has a slow build, introducing viewers to the changes in Germany that steadily restricted Jewish rights. It opens with a scene of a German shepherd (the pet of a well-to-do Jewish family in Berlin) giving birth to a litter of puppies.
As the family tries to find the puppies a home, they encounter early glimpses of antisemitism. A man approaches them, asking if they have papers proving the German shepherds are pure breeds. He tells the family about the superiority of pure breeds, a metaphor for the Nazi view of Jews as untermenschen, or people considered to be racially or socially inferior.
The film progresses with the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, a collection of laws passed in Nazi Germany that deprived Jews of their rights. We see the housekeeper of the family being told she can no longer work for Jews, followed by a law that prohibits Jews from owning pets. This leaves the film’s main character, 10-year-old Joshua (August Maturo), forced to part ways with his beloved German shepherd, Kaleb.
As Kaleb becomes a street dog, he’s eventually captured and then adopted by an SS dog trainer (Ken Duken) who trains the dog to round up and terrorize Jewish prisoners at a Nazi work camp. It’s at the camp where Kaleb is finally reunited with Joshua, though the young boy is now a prisoner.
Though the film is billed as a family feature, it’s far from it. It delves into harrowing scenes of concentration camps, which realistically are not fit for a family audience. It also deals with complex, difficult scenarios suited for adult crowds only. The first half of the film seems to drag, while the second half finally picks up speed that should have been present from the start.
The acting also leaves much to be desired. Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog had much potential, telling the story of the Holocaust through the lens of the unbreakable companionship between man and dog. It’s an angle seldom seen, if at all. Yet both the storyline and cast fell short of properly capturing the intense emotions of that devastating time in history.