Monday, May 24, 2021

Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog

This will not be The Incredible Journey, but rather a sad and terrible one. Nor will it be Homeward Bound, because Kaleb’s young Jewish owner is no longer welcome in his own homeland. However, it very definitely explores the human-animal bound. In fact, the four-legged star often displays more humanity than the two-legged characters in Lynn Roth’s English-language production Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog, which opens this Friday in New York.

Initially, life is comfortable for Joshua Gottlieb with his prosperous family in Berlin, but he is quite upset when his parents only allow him to keep one German Shepherd puppy from the litter his father delivers. However, viewers will soon assume it was partly due to their concern over the looming Nuremberg Laws. Soon, Joshua sees “No Jews Allowed” signs side-by-side with “No Dogs Allowed” signs. Before long, the Gottliebs are forced to give up their Aryan servants and the loyal Kaleb.

Kaleb is a good dog, but his new owner’s abusive anti-Semitic wife drives him away. Living on the streets, Kaleb makes friends with a pack of strays, until he is finally captured by animal control. Fortunately for Kaleb, his German Shepherd lineage is attractive to the SS vet choosing animals to train for service at concentration camps. Again, Kaleb (now known as “Blitz”) has affection for his new owner, but he has not forgotten young Gottlieb, who eventually arrives in the camp.

The way
Shepherd depicts the inhumanity of the era through a dog’s eyes is often provocative. Roth’s comparison of the dog kennel with the concentration camp, in which both dogs and people are fatefully separated into left and right lines, is not subtle, but it leaves a deep impression. However, the film muddles the vibe by trying to counter-balance the tough stuff with family-friendly boy-and-his-dog drama. As a result, it is hard to figure just who exactly is the film’s target audience.

Yet, the film is still quite forceful, starting with its expressive lead animal performance. Kaleb has an uncanny way of mirroring the audience’s sentiments with his big canine eyes. Without question,
Shepherd features some of the best dog-training for film since maybe White God, but not because of any tricks or stunts. It is the naturalness of Kaleb that makes such an impact. He also has good chemistry with August Maturo and Ken Duken, as Gottlieb and the SS handler.

By adapting Asher Kravitz’s novel, Roth tries for something ambitious. The fact that she sometimes succeeds is really rather impressive. It is important to remember the atrocities committed by National Socialist regime, so any critic that uses a phrase like “just another Holocaust movie” should be ashamed of themselves. Regardless, that simply isn’t true in this case. Roth and company take risks and really challenge the audience and to witness the horrible events from a completely different perspective. Frankly, it is worth seeing, just because it is so different. Recommended for older kids who can handle the intensity of its situations,
Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog opens this Friday (5/28) at the Village East and the Kew Gardens Cinema.