Historically centered films are —like their literary, musical and artistic counterparts— yet another way to keep the past and its lessons alive. Lessons of truth, lessons of love, lessons of bravery and lessons that teach us the importance of fighting towards something better are made new and relevant once again through the silver screen. One heavily spotlighted era is that of 1930s Germany. Wartime films are by no means rare, but director Lynn Roth’s film Shepherd: The Hero Dog puts a spin on such a topic by following in the footsteps of a four-legged creature’s journey through the Holocaust.
Based on the best-selling novel The Jewish Dog, by Asher Kravitz, the film follows Kaleb, a German Shepherd puppy born to a kind Jewish family living within the heart of Berlin. As he grows, Kaleb forms a close bond with young Joshua (August Matruo) and the two are nearly inseparable. When the Third Reich takes control of the country however, the laws made against the Jewish people quickly become more inflexible and more oppressive; one such rule forbade Jewish families to own pets, so Kaleb is given away to a new home. During the next few months, Kaleb undergoes a hard and lonely voyage, on the hunt for the family —for the boy— that he’s never stopped loving. From garbage-filled streets of the city, to the cold, wet woods that surrounds them and to neglected animal pounds, Kaleb finally reunites with Joshua… as a dog of an SS officer stationed at one of the thousands of concentration camps. The past is gone, the present is dangerous, and the future is uncertain for Kaleb, Joshua and everyone around them who dares to risk their lives for the freedom they once had.
Shepherd: The Hero Dog is a commendable film that chooses to focus on the strength of bonds forged by love, distance and time. Though the film hardly scratches the surface regarding the atrocities committed against the Jewish people, the tenderness of such a topic and the innocence (and cuteness) of pups is enough to prey upon our deepest emotions. The acting is rather subpar, but it can be overlooked due to the fact that Kaleb is given the most screen time. The injustice and horror that ran rampant during this period are brought forth through the simplest of means: the flashes of faces, small but frequent insults, dead trees and muddy water, barbed wire and the shrieks of a gun being fired. It doesn’t take much to establish an oppressive, squalid atmosphere, and Roth does a fine job of it. The bursts of hope that are scattered throughout the piece give the audience a reason to watch until the end. This film is a good introduction to the Holocaust for younger audiences, but it is hard to connect with anyone as there is little to no character development, and most of the people we meet are in the film are there for no longer than a couple of scenes.
Nonetheless, it is a moving tale that should be told. True stories are always the most beautiful as they are reminders of the goodness that remains amidst the darkest of days. The impact of the Holocaust has affected millions of lives and multiple generations; if only that heart-wrenching influence had been translated from the page to the camera in a more soulful, perhaps grittier fashion.
Shepherd the Hero Dog is available on VOD from June 29th
by Kacy Hogg
Kacy is an English Lit student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), Canada. Her favourite films include the Harry Potter series, Cinderella, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hangover, and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95