A lot of Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog shouldn’t work. After all, a film about a boy and his dog may be family fare, but most Holocaust stories decidedly are not. Making a movie that combines the two elements could easily be a recipe for disaster. So, it’s a credit to this flick that it mostly works. Now, a lot of the heavy lifting is due to the appeal of the leading dog, as it were, but the good outweighs the bad. In particular, not having the dog talk roots things in some needed realism. We don’t need this to be Schindler’s List, but a talking dog sure wouldn’t have worked. Opening this weekend, it’s something that a family can sit down and watch together.
Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog makes its bones (no pun intended) by appealing to dog lovers and families. Both the former and the latter groups can latch on to the bond that a young man and his canine companion can have. Even if the film itself has some warts, that simple truth manages to carry the day, ever so slightly.
Set in Berlin during the times of the Second World War. Jacob (August Maturo) and his family welcome some dogs into the family, with a puppy named Kaleb being the boy’s favorite. However, the Nazis have outlawed Jewish families from having pets. As the oppression becomes worse, Jacob’s father gives the dog away, beginning and adventure that soon has the canine surviving on the streets of Berlin.
Eventually, Kaleb winds up in the hands of the Nazis. Trained by Ralph (Ken Duken), an SS Officer, Kaleb proves to be a star pupil. Of course, this being World War II, he’s trained for duty at a concentration camp. He seems destined for a life serving evil, at least until the day where he picks up a familiar scent. It’s Joshua, who’s been sent to the camp. In a testament to the bond between a boy and his dog, Kaleb has not lost his loyalty to Joshua. The latter realizes that this is still his dog, bonding with him when he gets a job feeding the animals. With his life at risk, a daring escape is planned, one where Kaleb and Joshua will have to survive on their own.
The acting is nothing to write home about here. August Maturo is fine, though very much a child actor. Ken Duken tries to bring some humanity to his SS officer, but unfortunately, we’re just not in a position right now (or really ever) to want to care too much about a Nazi. Supporting players like Viktoria Stefanovsky likewise are on the forgettable side. If we’re being honest, best in show, performance-wise, is the dog.
Filmmaker Lynn Roth is not subtle in her approach, but nothing here is exploitative, either. Adapting the award-winning novel “The Jewish Dog,” by Asher Kravitz, Roth knows that if she gets you to care for Kaleb, she’ll succeed. That’s exactly what happens, too. The humans by and large fall short, but Kaleb is a winner. Jacob is a bit on the bland side, while it’s hard to develop an attachment to Ralph, but again…Kaleb is the star.
Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog is hardly a great film, but it’s hard to not have your heart warmed by the end. It just knows the right strings to pull. The movie is manipulative, but never saccharine. If you like dogs, you’re almost certainly going to find this to be worth your time.