Writer-director Lynn Roth instinctively knows how to pluck the heartstrings with her heartrending historical drama, “Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog.” Her adaptation retains the wit and wisdom found within the pages of Asher Kravitz’s novel “The Jewish Dog,” whose unconventional conceit chronicling the Holocaust through the perspective of a German Shepherd lends itself to plenty of poetic and fantastical realism on screen. Yet the family-friendly feature all too frequently falls into conventional trappings that it unwittingly sets up for itself, particularly when it strays from the pup’s point of view.
Kaleb is born surrounded by the love of a Jewish German family, the final puppy birthed on a warm, sunny day. He has the misfortune, however, of entering into this world right before a terrible, tumultuous time for the country in the 1930s. But as the pick of the litter, he’s showered with praise and joy by the youngest member of the family, 10-year-old Joshua (August Maturo). The pair form an immediate unbreakable bond, frolicking around their palatial apartment, playfully chasing older sister Rachel (Viktória Stefanovszky), much to the delight of mom Shoshanna (Ayelet Zurer) and dad Samuel (Ádám Porogi).
Nevertheless, a major societal upheaval is approaching. The Nazi party is in power and antisemitism is spreading fast throughout Europe, impeding the family’s happy lives and freedoms, mandating where they shop for groceries and where they attend school. Despite Shoshana’s worries about their future, and friends advising them to leave the country before dangerous circumstances unfold, Samuel makes the gut-wrenching decision to stay. Shortly thereafter, Germany’s strict Nuremberg Laws take effect that not only separate Kaleb from Joshua, but also splinter the entire loving family. Kaleb then struggles with the ever-changing world around him, bouncing from one desperate situation to the next (à la “War Horse”), winding up the prized pupil of SS dog trainer Ralph (Ken Duken) at a Nazi work camp. However, fate has a reunion planned between the boy and his precious pet.
Roth’s visual dexterity, capturing Kaleb’s perspective of both the heartfelt and horrific events, augments the emotive poignancy as well as thematic callbacks. She and cinematographer Gábor Szabó add subtle aesthetic texture and context to character-driven action. The opening montage establishing the doggie’s domain — where the camera fluidly glides around the familial apartment at foot level as the children and dogs fill the space with light, life, laughter and love — feels reminiscent of scenes from Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” There’s a cute homage to “101 Dalmatians,” when the protagonist pooch is at the park and notices other breeds looking similar to their owners. Kaleb’s survivalist stint on the streets, where he encounters a gang of strays, is photographed with masterful nuance, suggesting the possible influence of “White God.” Editors Cari Coughlin and Kathryn Himoff give these vital sequences a snappy, propulsive energy, allowing enough time for the profundity to land.
Though the film has its heart in the right place, it suffers from some misguided messaging. Deep pockets of compassion and sympathy are afforded Ralph, who represents evil folks definitely not deserving of such kindness. The empathy and grace that both Kaleb and Joseph show him might speak respectively to a dog’s forgiving, loyal nature and the naiveté of a child, but the choice teeters precariously on a fine line with adults. The prevailing sentiment that all humans have the potential for good inside them comes across as muddled and messy. Kaleb’s black and white flashbacks, reflecting on those who’ve helped him along his journey, might have played better on the page than on screen, allowing the reader to gently lean into the author’s prose and imaginative elements with greater ease.
Further disappointing is Roth’s tendency to undermine her unorthodox storytelling methods by following a predictable narrative path. While we feel the oppressive state and physical stakes, and fully empathize with their heartbroken spirits, a sense of pressing tension is lessened when we’re clued into details long before the characters are. And though Maturo nimbly and capably carries the picture on his small shoulders, it would have been more impactful seeing the horrors of war completely through his four-legged friend’s lens, not cutting away from Kaleb’s viewpoint.
Overall, Roth crafts a resonant picture, purposefully threading in themes centered on identity and degradation with a sensitive, deft touch. Where it falters in properly contextualizing its pervading sentiments, it often finds resilient strength in the smart parallels between animal and human.