A Dog’s Eye View of the Holocaust
by Nina Gold (Moment Magazine, June 21, 2021)
Stars Ayelet Zurer and August Maturo who play mother and son in the film.
A dog’s perspective is, to say the least, a most unusual approach to telling the history of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. But that is exactly what veteran Hollywood writer and director Lynn Roth (The Little Traitor and The Paper Chase) has done in her recently released film Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog.
Audience reactions suggest she has done a fine job. In a telephone interview, Roth relates how, after a recent screening in her hometown of Los Angeles, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor waited to meet and congratulate her, saying, “I stood in line to tell you I’m so happy you made this movie.” Queuing directly behind the survivor were two little boys with their mother. The eight-year-old gushed, “That was the best dog movie I ever saw.”
The genesis of the movie began in 2006 when Roth was teaching a Master Class on filmmaking in Israel. One of her students piqued her interest with an intriguing story. A friend of his, Asher Kravitz, had an idea for a novel about a German Jewish family’s pet dog and its journey through the Nazi era and the Holocaust. Roth was hooked. “It was such a different approach to the Shoah,” she tells me. “I have a great love and admiration for dogs, and I think that they bring out very strong emotions in us, sometimes emotions that other humans don’t bring out.” Roth swiftly started pitching the idea for a movie loosely based on Kravitz’s storyline.
Kravitz’s book became a best-seller when it was published in Hebrew as HaKelev HaYehudi in 2007 and later in English in 2015 as The Jewish Dog. Roth started writing the script in 2013, and she began filming at the end of 2017.
Ultimately, says Roth, this is “a dog movie; it just has a backdrop of something gigantically important.” And that is the key to the movie’s attraction. Roth wanted to make a film about the Holocaust that families could see together—one that would “engage the adults but not frighten the children.”
She intentionally eschewed atrocity footage in the hope that the storyline would allow adults the opportunity to introduce children to the history of the Shoah. As Roth says, “It was very tricky to find the right balance…we’ve seen the pictures of the millions of bodies piled up,” but, she believes, those do not necessarily further an understanding of what happened.
Shepherd is set “in a place in Germany in the 1930s” and, since it is not a true story, but rather an amalgamation of many things that happened during the Third Reich, there are no stated place names, and the exact time frame is kept deliberately amorphous.
The film starts with Samuel and Shoshonna and their children Rachel and Joshua, living in considerable comfort in an elegant home surrounded by books, music and antiques. When the family’s German Shepherd gives birth to four puppies, ten-year-old Joshua is allowed to keep one and chooses Kaleb.
Soon life becomes increasingly fraught. Signs appear in the windows of local stores, (“No Jews Allowed!” and “No Dogs Allowed”), the children are forced to leave their school and the family’s devoted maid is informed that Aryans are not permitted to work for Jews. New laws state that Jews cannot own dogs. Much to Joshua’s distress, Kaleb is given to a man who renames him Wilhelm and from whom he runs away.
From this point in the drama, Roth tells much of the story largely from Kaleb’s point of view as he struggles to find Joshua, survive as a stray, and then is put into a dog pound. Shot from a low angle, essentially from a dog’s eye view, Kaleb scavenges for food from trash cans, runs along railway lines, is a witness to book burning by swastika armband-wearing hoodlums and watches as members of the Hitler Youth beat up a young Jewish boy. Adults in the audience should grasp the poignancy of the visual subtexts—chimneys, cages, cattle wagons, feeding out of metal containers and a man in a white coat selecting dogs for training (directing them to enter a truck either on the left or right).
Kaleb is plucked from the pound to work for Ralph, an SS dog trainer, who renames him Blitz. After being tutored in how to detect Jews in hiding and learning to raise his right paw in a dog-style “Heil Hitler” salute, Kaleb and Ralph are posted to an unnamed work camp. Kaleb is well looked after by his new owner and performs his duties better than any of the other dogs.
But Kaleb never forgets his former owner, and when Joshua arrives as a prisoner in the camp, and an SS officer moves to throttle him, the dog goes on the attack to defend the young boy. Joshua is assigned to work with the camp animals, although he is forbidden to consume their food and forced to endure dire conditions.
Nonetheless, he is able to rekindle his loving relationship with Kaleb. But his life is in danger and he and Kaleb need to escape. Without giving away the rest of the plot, suffice to say that parents and grandparents need not worry about the children’s reaction. There may be tears at the end but be assured they will be of relief rather than anguish.
No less than five different German Shepherds played the part of Kaleb. One, in particular, has an exceptionally expressive face, appealing eyes and a cute way of putting its head to one side. All closeups were of that dog, but here’s a fun fact: As it had a distinctive dark brown patch of fur on its forehead, makeup had to be used on the other four dogs in order to match!
Roth points to a 2020 Claims Conference survey that found a woeful level of ignorance about the Holocaust nationally. Amongst millennials (those born between 1981-1996), 66 percent were unable to identify what Auschwitz was, 49 percent could not name one concentration camp or ghetto (despite there having been over 40,000 across Europe during World War II) and 41 percent thought that 2 million or fewer Jews were killed during the Shoah.
For Roth, the daughter of a rabbi, teaching the history of the Nazi era is of paramount importance. “I am terrified that in future generations people are not going to know what happened.”
Her efforts are now being rewarded with screenings in multiple cities across the United States and many more in the pipeline.