29th June 2020 (UK VOD Premiere)
Shepherd the Hero Dog follows the perilous journey to freedom when a young boy and his dog attempt to escape a concentration camp during World War II. When Kaleb, a beautiful German Shepherd, is taken away from his Jewish family he is captured by an SS Officer, and trained to help round up and terrorize Jewish prisoners. But when Kaleb's former master, young Joshua, arrives at the camp, the dog rediscovers his unwavering loyalty. Together the pair attempt to escape the camp and begin a journey to freedom.
Ayelet Zurer, Ken Duken, August Maturo
Dogs are just fantastic, aren’t they? Don’t answer that. It’s rhetorical.
They provide a level of loyalty and unwavering love that is unrivalled by humans. The incredible true story of Shepherd: The Hero Dog may just trump even the most devoted of dogs in history. Well, maybe not Hachi, but it’s darn close.
Beginning in Germany in the 1930’s, Shepherd follows a Jewish boy named Joshua as he raises German Shepherd Kaleb from a pup. The pair forms a special and unbreakable bond but when it becomes illegal for Jews to own pets, Joshua’s father makes the tough choice to give Kaleb away when his son is out.
Kaleb doesn’t take to his new owners though, and runs back to his former home only to find the family no longer there. He roams the streets for a while until he’s picked up by animal control and chosen to be trained by the SS to sniff out Jews. He becomes one of the best dogs of the outfit and is put to work in guarding a concentration camp.
It’s here where the pair become reunited, but obviously it’s not the victorious reunion you’d expect. Joshua is a prisoner and Kaleb is now named Blitz and has been disciplined to attack Jews.
Shepherd‘s script muzzles its sensitive subject matter, but occasionally lets its bite as a reminder of its seriousness. Dialogue is extremely clunky and the delivery is perfunctory – at times, painfully so – but it’s serviceable enough to get from one scene to the next. The true horrors of a concentration camp are mostly kept hidden, save for the odd story from a prisoner here and there. The implication based on the squalid conditions of the electrified fence location and its dishevelled prisoners are enough to paint a sombre picture for young teen audiences, however.
I’d say this would be the ideal target market for this film too, as it’s a little too mature to act as an entry point for the atrocities, especially with an attempted escape sequence, and yet, it’s only a superficial surface level look for anyone looking to learn about anything from that time period. Nazi symbolism is kept to a minimum and bizarrely some officers are made out to be somewhat compassionate in certain moments.
In a surprising but welcome creative decision, the dog’s thoughts and memories are recounted through black and white flashbacks. We see Kaleb have fond recollections of his time as a puppy, how he frolicked with a pack of wild dogs and even him warmly remembering his short stint as an SS Officer’s dog. On paper, it sounds hokey but it actually works rather well and adds another level of complexity to him. Speaking of the wild dogs, just give me an hour and a half of dogs running together and I’d be content. Shepherd pours on the schmaltzy syrup too, giving our titular canine a whirlwind romance to look back on for good measure.
It’s not that strange then that there’s very little threat felt in Shepherd. The backdrop is one of the worst times in human history, especially for a Jewish boy, but I never felt like Joshua is ever in any real jeopardy. Maybe it’s down to it being aimed at younger target audience.Fortunately, the bond felt between Joshua and Kaleb never falters and is as good as any animal/owner feel good tale.
Although weirdly enough and given its tendency to resolve its situations quite easily and positively, Shepard‘s closing moments are noticeably unsettling, perhaps hinting that there is some bite left in this largely defanged dog drama.
Strong bond between human and animal leads
Surface level looks makes it a good starting point for 12/13 year olds to learn about concentration camps
Extremely clunky dialogue at times
Not much threat felt even being set in some of the most atrocious times in history