SHEPHERD: The Story of a Jewish Dog
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lynn Roth
Writer: Lynn Roth, Based on Asher Kravitz’s novel “The Jewish Dog”
Cast: August Maturo, Ken Duken, Ayelet Zurer, Ádám Porogi, Viktória Stefanovszky
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/21/21
Opens: May 28, 2021
If you have even been owned by a dog or two, if you have felt the reciprocal love that comes from this lucky break, prepare to shed a tear. “Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog,” tells of the separation and the ultimate reunion of a 12-year-old boy Joshua (August Maturo) and his German Shepherd Caleb (Hebrew for “dog” also connoting “as if it understands”). But if you are the kind of person who, when told by a friend that her dog got lost, or died, and you respond, “So what? It’s a dog and you can get another,” you might miss the emotional impact evoked in this film or, who knows…you might see and feel the tragedy when dog and human are separated.
The idea of a Jewish dog may be ironic, or maybe not, but in any case Lynn Roth, who directs and co-wrote, adapted Israeli Asher Kravitz’s novel “The Jewish Dog” translated into English by Michal Kessler, which on Amazon states that it is meant for people fourteen years of age and up. It is, I believe, meant for the entire family, if you overlook its basic simplicity (meant as a compliment because it is kid-friendly) and the fact that everyone speaks good English—the Germans played largely by Hungarians, the folks playing Yugoslav partisans, and to a lesser extent the American actors.
Surveys have found that forty percent of Americans have no idea what the Holocaust was all about, certainly true of the “Proud Boys” and Oath Keepers who are sure that it was all made up by Jews who pushed for the creation of Israel, and who spread the fake news via the “worldwide Jewish control of the media.” There is a direct line from the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Life is Beautiful,” made largely for teens, so you don’t have to worry that your adolescent girls and boys will hear any curse word stronger than the “damn,” or that any dog would have the bad manners to pee and poop for the camera, or even to sniff another canine butt. But you will see the phenomenal brutality of the Nazis save for one guy, Ralph (Ken Duken), who adopts “Shepherd” with the job of chasing runaway Jews, calls him “Blitz,” and gives him love. Never mind that he is ready to kill young Joshua, a resident of the Treblinka concentration camp, for stealing crumbs meant for the camp animals.
The tale opens on the Berlin of 1935 when Jews are increasingly oppressed by signs on stores “No Jews allowed.” Joshua’s mother Shoshonna (Ayelet Zurer) and father Samuel (Ádám Porogi) break the news that Jews have been forbidden to have pets and that all their dogs were impounded. Shepherd is adopted first by the housekeeper’s husband Frank (Miklós Kapácsy), who calls him “Wilhelm,” and is henpecked by his mean wife Greta (Lois Robbins) who uses the opportunity to tell Frank how worthless he is.
Shepherd runs away, finds his way home, sees that his family is missing, and is caught on the street by the dogcatchers. In short order, he’s chosen by Nazi Ralph (Ken Duken) who now tells the dog his name is Blitz. Blitz is so brilliant that he learns to give the Heil Hitler salute, ingratiating him with the German officer corps who assign Ralph the job of training him to cut down anyone wearing a yellow star.
Life as shown in the Treblinka barracks is neither “Stalag 17” nor “Escape from Sobibor.” Little Joshua is assigned to feed the camp’s ducks, chickens, pigs and dogs, at which time Shepherd/Wilhelm/Blitz excitedly sees the boy and Joshua excitedly sees “Shepherd/Wilhelm/Blitz. The rest follows the tenets of historical fiction, though the movie ends before the book does so we do not see the death of the dog or Joshua.
The key conversation in this film takes place early on, as Joshua’s family tries to sell Caleb in the park. They are confronted by a potential sale, but the interested gentleman takes a pass because he cannot get the dog’s papers and therefore may not be pure. Call this a subtle dig at the show dog world, but more important, the passerby has internalized the absurd idea of the purity of blood. As sixty percent of Americans know, Jews, gypsies, even Jehovah’s Witnesses went to death camps because of the so-called impurity of their red stuff in a film which avoids graphic scenes like prisoners hanging (though a few get electrocuted on the camp fence, but that’s a distant shot).
This is a compelling enough movie, an effective Holocaust 101 course, entertaining enough for the big fry and likely absorbing the teens and prepubescent. The show’s star, the title character, is uncredited in the IMDB may be played by more than one dog.
93 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B