A boy and his dog — 
and a Shoah setting

Director Lynn Roth's new film is about the Shoah - seen through the eyes of a boy's pet German Shepherd


Even when the first case of coronavirus was reported in December last year, I never imagined that in a few months’ time all interviews would be prefaced by a discussion about a global pandemic. Yet here we are. And, as writer-director Lynn Roth says, after apologising for “wandering” off topic, when I call her at home in Los Angeles to discuss her new film, “it’s impossible to talk about anything else without going through this subject first”.

New York, where she was born in 1952, became the epicentre of the American virus outbreak, with “absolutely terrible” results. But while LA hasn’t been hit as badly, “people are very cavalier,” Roth says. “They think because the sun shines all the time, they can just run around without masks and do whatever they want.”

On top of this, of course, there have been “humongous protests” sparked by the killing of George Floyd. “There was not one mention of the coronavirus. Not one!” she says, aghast. “Nobody said, ‘There are 50,000 people on Hollywood Boulevard and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so that might not be such a good idea.’”

She contrasts the way the crisis was decisively managed in South Korea, Singapore and Japan with the poor response of her own country, where the death toll has reached 121,000 at the time of writing, and is still rising. “They had a government,” Roth says drily. “Remember government?”

As an indicator of how bad things have got, she reveals that sometimes her way of picking herself up when she “feels so oppressed by everything” is to “think back to the times of the Shoah and then, you know, I realise: look what they had to overcome and deal with. We just have to make the best of it.”

The Holocaust has always been a part of her life and now it is the setting for her latest feature film, Shepherd: The Hero Dog.

Although Jewish subjects weren’t, generally, an aspect of her output for television, where she became the first woman showrunner of an hour-long drama series, The Paper Chase (1983-86), and most of her movies were about “women overcoming obstacles and triumphing”, it seems inevitable that the genocide would eventually enter her work.

She grew up in a “super-Jewish family” where the men were or are all either rabbis or cantors. Her late father, who fled to the United States from Romania but spoke Hungarian (“The borders kept changing and you’d wake up every morning and they were in another country”) was a rabbi. “His father was a rabbi,” says Roth. “My other grandfather was a cantor. All of my uncles. No women though, which is not good. So, I grew up in a hugely rich Jewish background. And I love my Jewishness. I feel it’s one of the greatest gifts of my life. I absolutely treasure it.”

Amid the joy, the Shoah cast its shadow over the family. Relatives who hadn’t been able to escape to either America or Israel (her mother grew up in Palestine and was an ardent Zionist) perished, and Roth’s father carried their pictures lovingly in his wallet. Prayers would be said and the tragic history discussed. Whether such frankness was entirely healthy for Roth, though, is debatable.

“As a child I would have a lot of Holocaust dreams. Many, many Holocaust dreams, so vivid that I could close my eyes today and remember them. So, either all the talk and discussion and awareness of it made these dreams, or maybe I was a reincarnation of someone that was in the camps. Who knows? But I had a lot of childhood dreams and a fierce enthusiasm about Israel.”

She expressed the latter in The Little Traitor (2009), a big-hearted adaptation of Israeli author Amos Oz’s novel Panther in the Basement, about a friendship between a Jewish boy (Ido Port) and a British soldier (Alfred Molina) — initially “the enemy” in the child’s eyes — in the months leading up to the creation of Israel.

Directing the film actually in the Jewish state was so much the fulfilment of a long-burning passion for Roth that when the second Lebanon war broke out during production, she carried on regardless. “Every once in a while I would have to yell ‘Cut!’ and stop everything so that the warplanes going to Lebanon would not be in the sound. So that was pretty interesting.”

Dedicated to the memory of her parents, Rabbi Michael Roth and Geula Roth, Shepherd: The Hero Dog is adapted from another Israeli novel, Asher Kravitz’s The Jewish Dog, although when Roth first heard about it, from a friend of the author, while teaching a pitching masterclass in Israel, the book was still being written. However, she was so grabbed by the idea of a Holocaust story told through the eyes of a canine, that she became like a dog with a bone herself.

“I just knew when I heard it this is something I had to do,” she enthuses. “I could not walk away from this idea. So I waited for the book to be written and I optioned it and I optioned it and I optioned it and I eventually bought it.”

The book offered a unique way of looking at the Holocaust, which makes me ask if we need to keep finding fresh modes of telling these stories, especially now the first-hand witnesses are disappearing. Roth is momentarily taken aback. “When I listen to your question I think, ‘Oh my gosh, we all don’t need to resort to gimmicks. We don’t want to have to think of gimmicks to tell these stories.’” This makes her suddenly remember hearing somebody once say, “Oh no, not another Holocaust story,” to which she’d replied, “Until we tell six million Holocaust stories, then there will not be too many.”

Nonetheless, as a dog lover herself, she thought Kravitz’s unusual approach “would set off different emotions” and give younger people “of many races, religions and creeds” a more accessible way to connect to Holocaust history and learn about it. And not just young people: Roth has been studying the Holocaust her whole life, but even she was amazed to discover — as I was when I watched her film — that owning pets was one of the things Jews were prohibited from doing by the Nuremberg Laws.

“That was another reason why I really wanted to make this. I was shocked and so I called the author and I said, ‘Did you make this up? Send it to me.’ I subsequently went through the Nuremberg Laws and sure enough, there it is. Every day there was a new law. It was insane.”

In the film, Kaleb, the eponymous German Shepherd dog, experiences profiling, exclusion, separation from family, selection and the realisation that his survival depends on his usefulness to the Nazis. While working as a guard dog in an unnamed labour camp, he is reunited with his original owner, Joshua (August Maturo, from Disney’s Girl Meets World) and they help each other to survive.

Because Kaleb repays compassion with loyalty, there is a strange moment where he is briefly torn between his German handler and Joshua, despite the former preparing to summarily put a bullet in the boy for stealing animal feed. How should I feel about this, I wonder?

“You know,” says Roth, “I spent a long time deciding whether I wanted to do this, and I did it because I felt it added another layer to it, which is that the dog operates on loyalty — love, if these animals can feel it — and there has to be some inherent good or inherent something in everybody.

“Believe me, I’m not trying to portray a good Nazi, because I’m a pretty adamant Jew. But he did have an element that the dog could relate to. So the question is, if that side of him could have been more prominent, would there have been fewer Nazis?”

This touches on the themes that Roth has written have “confounded” her most: “the fascinating quality of dogs” and “how the world tolerated the ‘animals’ who came to power in Germany and Austria”.

When I query whether making the film has given her any new insights, she says working with 40 dogs (five played Kaleb) on the movie has only made her admire them more. “I can say now that I really believe that these canine creatures bring out our best human qualities and there were so many times I felt I could really understand what was going on in the dog’s mind.”

Like some human actors they could be temperamental and not in the mood to work. “But at the end of an arduous day of filming, every once in a while one of the dogs would put his head on my knee as if to say, ‘We worked hard today, good job and now it’s time to relax.’

“I can’t really remember any actor doing that,” laughs Roth, who says she has worked with some of the “greatest divas in the world” including Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball and Elaine Stritch.

As for the rise of the Nazis, “I became even more confounded by the fact that this terrible time in history occurred,” she admits sadly.

“Recreating these scenes made one feel like they were actually living through it and intensified how inconceivable it was that this systematic cruelty and eventual elimination went on and on and most of the world stood by and did nothing.”


Shepherd: The Hero Dog is available on Digital HD from June 29


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