Shepherd: The Hero Dog review – Nazi-era drama strikes the right tone

A family of German Jews are separated from their pet by Nuremburg laws in this honest, unsentimental film

In 1930s Germany, the thoroughly assimilated Jewish Schoenmann family welcome the arrival of a litter of puppies when Anya, their pedigree German shepherd, gives birth in their sun-splashed flat. Although young Joshua (August Maturo) and his sister Rachel (Viktoria Stefanovszky) plead with them to keep the lot, his parents insist that only one puppy can be kept; the rest must be rehomed. The lucky pup who stays, a male named Kaleb, forms an intense bond with young master Jacob.

Naturally, these opening 10 minutes or so foreshadow the tragedies to come. Soon the Nazis bring in the Nuremburg race laws and the family have their rights and safety eroded bit by bit, including the right to own pets. Jacob and Kaleb are separated, but God, ever the mysterious way-worker and crafter of movie-logic ironies, ensures that they are eventually reunited in a concentration camp. By this point Kaleb is being cared for by a Nazi guard (Ken Duken, packing a disturbingly attractive Ralph-Fiennes-in-Schindler’s-List-style smoulder) and Jacob is a starving prisoner.

Based on an Israeli novel by Asher Kravitz but produced by a US-based company with American director Lynn Roth and shot mostly in Hungary with a largely east European cast, this is a fittingly diasporic production for the subject matter. There’s a palpable sense that the package is designed for multigenerational viewing, using the cute puppies to lure in the kids before delivering an honest but palatable history lesson about the Holocaust. As such, it succeeds in walking the tonal high beam without falling into soul-destroying bleakness on one side or a saccharinely fake happy ending on the other. That’s no mean feat.

Given that accomplishment, it’s maybe a little churlish to complain that the acting is sometimes a bit wooden and the story beats are often on the nose. The dogs, however, are adorable, especially the motley pack a homeless Kaleb falls in with halfway through, a few of whom might have been canine extras in Kornel Mundruczo’s White God from 2014.

• Shepherd: The Hero Dog is on digital platforms from 29 June.

• This article was amended on 1 July 2020 after an editorial error mixed up the names of three actors and the characters they were playing. This has now been corrected.


Leslie Felperin

The GuardianTramp

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