Canine Therapy Thaws Prisoners′ Hearts in New German Film | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 22.07.2008
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Canine Therapy Thaws Prisoners' Hearts in New German Film

In this premiere feature by director Jan Hinrik Drevs, a German prison goes to the dogs as inmates are given pups to train. The film shows how the canines break through the hard shell around these hardened criminals.

A scene from Underdogs

A scene from "Underdogs"

Barking out orders like "sit, stay, come" might appear to be an odd form of reintegration therapy. But in the new comedy "Underdogs," which opens in German theaters on July 24, training puppies to be seeing-eye dogs is a first step toward instilling warmth and responsibility into men who have had difficulty fitting into society.

The film's protagonist, a muscle-bound prisoner named Mosk (Thomas Sarbacher), is the facility's top dog, whose main interest is winning the jail's upcoming weight-lifting contest. But he and several of his fellow inmates are given Labrador retriever puppies to train by the prison director, played by Clelia Sarto. She hopes the dog-rearing program can instill a sense of responsibility in the men that many largely lack.

While the introverted Mosk shows little interest in his furry charge at the outset, calling him simply "dog," and resenting the fact that he has to share his cell with the animal. But after a while, the puppy, who he eventually names "Grappa," begins to bring out the softie inside of him.

Prison premiere

Recently the film was shown in Berlin's Moabit prison. In a hall where inmates normally clean mail carrier bags, a simple screen was hung on exposed pipes and an audience of around 50 prisoners got a sneak-preview.

The movie was enjoyed by this viewing public, who, after all, couldn't very well walk out. But judging from the reaction, few wanted to. There was applause, whistling and calls of "bravo" during the final credits.

"Nice that is was so well received," director Drevs, 40, told the DPA news agency.

Drevs, already known for his documentary work, got the idea for his first feature film in the United States. While in New York, he met a prisoner who had taken part in a dog-training project that prepared prisoners for life in the outside world.

He told the prison audience he had never heard of a similar project in Germany. But when he asked the inmates if such a program would interest them, a chorus went up of "of course!"

A social worker in attendance named Bernd thanked the filmmakers for a "very low-key, very sensitive" film. He told DPA that a prison is normally a cold place, and if the presence of a dog could waken emotions and a film was able to bring that across, that was something remarkable indeed.

A scene from Underdogs

A prisoner learns about the dog-training program in a scene from "Underdogs"

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