Review: Outrunning Nazis in compelling family drama ‘Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog’
Despite outward appearances, “Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog” isn’t a canine heart-tugger on the order of the fine “A Dog’s Purpose” or “My Dog Skip” but more of a family-style adventure drama with an important historical bent.
That’s not to say the film, written and directed by Lynn Roth, based on the 2015 novel by Asher Kravitz, isn’t an emotional journey. After all, it’s set in mid-1930s Germany as the Third Reich is wreaking havoc on the Jews, who, among the endless injustices being hailed upon them, are suddenly banned from having pets.
This new decree sets the tale in motion as Caleb, a beloved young German Shepherd (the film is occasionally told from his point of view), is forcibly given up by his family, especially affecting 10-year-old son Joshua (August Maturo). A fraught string of events lands Caleb in the pound, where he’s chosen by Ralph (Ken Duken), a dog trainer for the SS, to work alongside him in a concentration camp.
Caleb’s sharp abilities (he even learns the Hitler salute — yikes!) make him an invaluable addition, earning the dog-loving Ralph the respect of his superiors. But as fate — and narrative coincidence — would have it, Joshua, who’s been separated from his family by the Nazis, is sent to the same camp where Caleb, now called Blitz, has been trained to search out and attack Jewish prisoners.
Joshua soon realizes that this dutiful Shepherd is actually Caleb, they riskily rebond, and a series of involving turns leads boy and dog, along with several other starving, desperate prisoners, on a daring escape mission.
The picture, nicely shot and rendered on a seemingly modest budget (Hungary subs for Germany), downplays the kind of horrific imagery and gut-wrenching emotions seen in so many Holocaust-era films, keeping squarely in the PG range of tension and terror (the movie is unrated). To that end, younger viewers will receive a worthy, accessible lesson in the era’s dreadful legacy, though older audiences may sometimes find its approach — and a few of the performances — a tad on-the-nose.
Still, Roth wisely manages to avoid excess mawkishness and keeps the action moving apace. As for Caleb, played by five dogs, he’s a gorgeous, compelling pooch who could easily inspire an uptick in German Shepherd adoptions.