Written and directed by Lynn Roth, Kaleb, a beloved German Shepherd, is separated from his Jewish family when the Nuremberg Laws are enacted in WWII Berlin. He is adopted by an SS Officer who trains him to attack and round up Jews at a concentration camp. Starring: August Maturo, Ken Duken, Ayelet Zurer, Ádám Porogi, Viktória Stefanovszky, Lois Robbins and Miklós Kapácsy.
Before judging this film you have to keep in mind the audience that it was made for; if you go into it expecting the likes of The Zookeeper’s Wife or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. This is a very family focused film, it’s clearly intended for young viewers and so is veiled in the softness and sentimentality which that inherently entails. That’s not to say it doesn’t touch at all upon the hatred or violence of the war, but it does so in a way that’s not too harsh and easy to understand. However, there is an argument to be made that it plays softer because one of the things it struggles with most is sincerity, it simply can’t quite hit a note of authenticity to really hit the emotions home. In fact the more emotional scenes are those that focus on Kaleb. It’s a story that for an adult isn’t going to yield any surprises but can be a touching adventure for its young viewers.
The direction is a mixed bag, again it struggles to bring more of a genuine feel to it, despite the fact that the costumes and sets do work rather well. It simply has a hue to it that’s too clean and safe, which is at odds with its historical setting, making it difficult to really dive into the period but again, it’s something that children won’t notice. Not to mention that you can’t deny the power of puppies, and opening your film on several of them and spending so much time framing a love of pets and the smartness of dogs is a strong strategy. It’s just a shame that the human element doesn’t quite back that up.
Surprisingly, the strongest performance you could pick out of this cast is of the Nazi officer Ralph, played by Ken Duken (he also played a German solider in Inglorious Basterds). He manages to hit a more authentic note than most of the cast, his kinder side hidden beneath a wall of loyalty to the wrong side comes through nicely. August Maturo does well as Joshua but this is a very difficult role to put on the shoulders of such a young actor and he does struggle at times to pull back slightly and not go over the top. The rest of the cast don’t get a huge amount of time to make an impression but Ayelet Zurer is a great addition as Joshua’s mother.
Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog gives you exactly what you expect, it provides a family friendly exploration of the Second World War. It goes all in on the sentimentality, even at one point having its dogs hold paws which does make it struggle to hold a tangible sincerity but it plays to a very young audience who’ll likely enjoy it’s more cheesy feel. If nothing else, it’s a strong example of how the bond between boy and dog can’t be broken.