Although I love dog-related cinema in all its schmaltzy glory, not every film can be the next Homeward Bound, Marley & Me, or A Dog’s Purpose. It’s easier to make an aggressively average doggie flick that a truly great one. Thankfully, Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog, directed by Lynn Roth and based on the bestselling Israeli novel, “The Jewish Dog,” is an unforgettable journey of courage and perseverance.
Rooted in Jewish culture, the setting is 1930’s Germany amidst the Nazi regime. After laws are passed forbidding Jews to own pets, German Shepherd Kaleb gets separated from his family. Kaleb and his siblings are all dispersed into different families. “Perhaps he only like Jews,” chimes one particularly nasty owner after treating her new dog in a cold and distant way. We follow Kaleb on a whirlwind ride to be reunited with his 10-year-old owner Joshua (August Maturo).
Obviously Nazi-run Germany is a time period rife with horrors and scalding, depressing realities. Shepherd doesn’t go overboard or exploitative with its depiction of this time period. It does make the world feel real by presenting the tensions and cautious living of any Jewish people. Joshua remarks at one point “let’s not be Jewish—let’s become Catholic!” It broke my heart to hear a child so young wishing they could simply alter their beliefs to escape the persecutions. When the dogs were all taken away by different owners, it broke my heart. It’s terrifying to me that breaking their souls, spirits, and bodies wasn’t enough. The Nazis had to rob them of their canine companions, too.
Kaleb’s journey is wild, and frequently upsetting. He ends up in the pound, through various owners, and even bears witness to a Jewish kid being beaten senselessly in the streets. A depiction of a concentration camp is upsetting, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Little Joshua is so innocent as he’s told “if you steal even one crumb of food, you will be shot.” There isn’t a heavy emphasis on this aspect to the story. There’s a stunning reveal that makes this subplot entirely worth it. It acts as an effective moment worthy of uproarious applause.
The final act is when the meaningful and heartfelt messages come full circle. It’s all evocative of Homeward Bound. At times uplifting and inspiring, Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog pulsates in the specificity of 1930’s Germany while crafting a heartwarming bond between master and companion.
Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog finds its way home in theaters on Friday, May 28th.