“Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog” unfolds from the perspective of Kaleb, a German shepherd. Separated from his owners by the Nuremberg Laws’ ban on Jews owning pets, he is adopted and trained by an SS officer to work at a concentration camp, which leads to a reunion with his 10-year-old master, Joshua. It’s based on the best-selling novel “The Jewish Dog” by Israeli author Asher Kravitz.
“To tell a story about the Shoah through a dog and with a dog brings in emotions that I felt had not yet been explored,” writer-director Lynn Roth told the Journal. Roth was teaching a filmmaking course in Israel when a student brought his friend Kravitz’s idea to a pitch class. She loved the story, and when she read the book, “There was no way I could let this go,” she said.
Although the basic plot is the same, Roth’s adaptation departs from the novel where the canine hero talked and served as the narrator. “The book had an entirely different tone,” Roth said. “This is more like an old-fashioned dog movie.”
The core messages also remain the same: Dogs bring out the best in people and humans can learn a lot from them. “If we could be more like dogs, we might be living on a higher level. They function on pure love,” Roth said. “To me, the relationship with a dog is one of the most profound relationships a human can have. I learn from my dog all the time — forgiveness, patience, love, all the things that make life better.”
However, working with multiple canines—including the five that played Kaleb — was a challenge. “I had to learn patience in a way that I never had before,” Roth said. “We had to be completely still and not make eye contact with the dogs while the trainers trained them. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and time is money. But if you don’t get the scenes with the dogs right, [none of it will] be right.”
“Shepherd” was shot in and around Budapest, Hungary, which stood in for Germany. “Germany has been so rebuilt it was hard to find locations that look like World War II,” Roth explained. “We shot the concentration camp on a standing set where they shot ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.’ ”
On location, she had to contend with freezing weather and the fact that there was a limit to the number of hours that child actor August Maturo could work. But having made the “The Little Traitor” with a child lead, she was prepared. “I love working with children,” she said. “I love their wonder toward life.”
Roth was born in Manhattan, grew up on Long Island and moved to Los Angeles as a teen. She grew up “very Jewish” in a family of rabbis and cantors, her Transylvania-born father among them. “There were 12 children in my paternal grandfather’s family. Four went to Israel, four came here and the ones that stayed perished,” she said.
Her interest in writing and directing emerged early. “When I was a kid, I would organize the block and put on a show. I guess I had it in me,” she said. “Coming from a family of rabbis and cantors, that was theater to me — ‘shul business.’ It felt completely natural.”
In addition to being the first woman to showrunner of an hourlong drama series, “The Paper Chase” (1983-86), Roth worked on a lot of projects about women’s issues. “Most of my television movies were about women overcoming obstacles and triumphing,” she said. “Now I’m in my Jewish phase. I’ve made some documentaries in Israel, ‘Little Traitor,’ ‘Shepherd.’ I have a feeling that whatever I do in the future might have a Jewish theme.”
After its West Coast premiere at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, “Shepherd” will continue to play the Jewish festival circuit, aiming for a theatrical release in the next six months. Roth is also trying to get it seen by children outside the Jewish community as a way to teach about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism through the experiences of the canine hero. “I really want to get it into Catholic schools, schools in African American and Latino communities,” she said. She thinks it’s appropriate for children who are 11 years old and older.
“I am hoping that this film will have some influence on people,” Roth said. “I hope they never forget this time in history and look around and see what’s
happening now with anti-Semitism and understand that these things could happen again.”
As a low-budget, independent feature, “this movie was made with spit and blood,” she said. “These are hard movies to get made. But it was worth every minute.”
“Shepherd” will screen at 8 p.m. May 4 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; and at 2:30 p.m. May 5 at Laemmle’s Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Both include Q&A’s with Roth and cast members.