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Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog (A Movie Review)

Updated: Aug 6, 2021


Starring August Maturo, Ken Duken, Ayelet Zurer, Ádám Porogi, Viktoria Stefanovszky, Lois Robbins, Miklós Kapácsy, Kristóf Widder, Miklós Béres, Gábor Nagypál, Zsolt Páll, Piroska Mészáros, Levente Molnár, Alexis Latham, Carna Krsul, Máté Haumann, Péter Scherer, Peter Linka, Géza Bodor, Peter Schueler, Zsuzsa Gyöngy and Hans Peterson.

Screenplay by Lynn Roth.

Directed by Lynn Roth.

Distributed by JDog Films. 93 minutes. Not Rated.

The atrocities of Nazi Germany circa World War II were legendary and well-documented. It is a bit of a surprise when you run across one you haven’t heard of before after all these years.

In Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog we see the story of Kaleb, a beloved pet of a Jewish family who must give him up when the Nazis outlawed Jews having pets. Therefore, the German Shepherd bounces from home to home before living on the streets and eventually being put into the pound, where he is “recruited” by a Nazi officer who teaches him to track Jews.

Yes, compared to the Nazis’ other atrocities, some may say the banning of pets is a tiny bit insignificant, but it is actually a horrible attempt to sublimate and dishearten the Jewish people.

Now, I’m not 100% sure if this law really happened or if it was just come up with for this story. From what I could find in a quick search online, for as horrific as many of the Nazis were, most of their leaders were animal lovers and staunch defenders of animal rights. (Even Hitler had a beloved dog.) While I can certainly see them choosing to deny the love of a pet to the Jews, it’s harder to see them allowing the animals to live the hard life of strays and perhaps starve on the streets. Of course, it’s an entirely different conversation about what it says about the Nazis that they treated animals better than they did human beings, but that is not news. And, of course, that’s kind of the point of this film.

Still, true historical fact or not, it’s a fascinating story idea, but also one that must be handled rather delicately by filmmakers. In general, dog films tend to be a bit cute, just because canines are so damned charming. However, by making the film too adorable, it would sort of trivialize the tragic back story of being Jewish in the middle of Nazi Germany. (Even for a dog!)

At the same time, if the film was made to be too dark – as the broad subject matter most certainly lends itself to – then the majesty and the beauty and natural adorableness of the title dog (and other dogs who pop up throughout the film) can be overwhelmed by the horror of the situation.

For the most part, Shepherd: A Story of a Jewish Dog handles this balancing act well – never really getting too cloying, nor too tragic.

And the dog who plays Kaleb – well, wow, he’s just a beauty.

Which is a good thing, because the character of the dog is the only character who is in this film straight through. People come and go in his life (and in one instance comes back), but mostly we are following this lovely German shepherd’s path through life.

The film starts as Kaleb is born to a well-off middle class Jewish family in Germany of the 1930s. He is the runt of the litter of five puppies had by the family’s beloved shepherd, and when the parents insist that they cannot have six dogs in their apartment, young son Joshua (August Maturo) falls particularly hard for Kaleb and begs the parents to let them keep at least him.

Kaleb grows to be big and strong and healthy and very smart, and his bond with Joshua keeps growing deeper. However, Nazism is growing in the town and the family is slowly losing rights and being ostracized. When the no pets law comes down, they must reluctantly find new homes for Kaleb and his mother.

The new home Kaleb is sent to is that of a nice ineffectual man and his mean wife. He brought Kaleb as a gift for his wife, who was mourning the death of their beloved dog, but she wants nothing to do with this new “Jewish dog.” Kaleb escapes and finally makes his way back to his home, but his family is already gone.

He ends up living on the streets with a pack of stray dogs, eventually being caught and put in the pound, and finally being adapted by a Nazi officer – who is more feeling than most, but still a Nazi and able to become ruthless at a moment’s notice – who trains Kaleb to find hidden Jews. Eventually Kaleb and his new owner end up working at a concentration camp, where it turns out that Joshua is one of the prisoners.

I won’t go any deeper into the storyline, because a big part of the fun in Shepherd is to see what happens. Much of it is not exactly surprising, but it is also touching and intriguing. The dog who plays Kaleb is actually quite accomplished as a canine actor – with his soulful eyes he is able to look mournful and excited in a way that is quite affecting.

Like I said above, it mostly avoids the potential pitfalls of becoming too dark or too sentimental. Shepherd would actually be a nice gateway to introducing smaller children to the atrocities of the Holocaust, but it is also entertaining for adults – particularly animal lovers.

And I have to say again, the dog who plays Kaleb is just gorgeous. Just watching him prance around for an hour and a half is time well spent.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: May 28, 2021.


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