Karlovy Vary Review: Jake Paltrow’s ‘June Zero’

Jake Paltrow directs and co-writes June Zero, an unusual account of the death of Adolf Eichmann that’s screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Opening immediately after the verdict of his trial, it shows the impact of the Holocaust criminal’s 1962 execution on three very different characters: a boy, a prison guard and a police investigative officer. Shot on super-16mm in Israel and Ukraine, it’s Paltrow’s first foreign-language production after features including The Good Night and Young Ones.

The decision to use the Hebrew language was fueled by Paltrow’s co-writer Tom Shoval, and it gives the film an authentic flavor. The choice to open it with an adolescent boy, David, adds a sense of nostalgia and warmth that might seem surprising given the subject matter.

Newcomer Noam Ovadia puts in a charming performance as the lively young Libyan who gains work at an oven factory in Israel, principally because he’s small enough to clean the ovens. After opportunistically stealing a gold watch belonging to his boss, he overhears a private conversation that touches on world events: the factory is to be commissioned to make a crematorium for Eichmann’s body. The fact that cremation isn’t usual in Israeli culture enhances the workers’ fascination with this event, something they both take pride in and feel queasy about.

David’s story is the most engaging of the three, filled with simple but vivid details about his moral dilemmas and his desire to belong in a new culture. Its tone is quite distinct from that of Haim (Yoav Levy), Eichmann’s main prison guard, whom we follow from the factory to the prison, where he guards one of the most hated men in the country.

A few details here engage. Haim must prevent any Ashkenazi Jews from coming into contact with the prisoner, in case they become “emotional.” A scene where he anxiously watches a new barber cut Eichmann’s hair, fearing an attack, is a memorable one. Visibly stressed, Haim is told by a journalist: “You Israeli police have it all backwards — you’re his prisoners!” Eichmann himself is only shown briefly and never in full.
The final central character is the police officer of the Eichmann trial, Micha (Tom Hagi). Rather than showing him at the trial, this sees him returning to Poland after surviving Auschwitz-Birkenau, sharing an emotive story of his traumatic experiences. A gentle figure, Micha approaches his duty with diligence and humanity and offers another distinct perspective.

June Zero focuses on the struggle of the working man (women are almost completely absent from this film) to do his job in an unprecedented situation: a prisoner responsible for millions of deaths must be put to death and cremated in a humane way. The practicalities of this are occasionally grim and quietly interesting, if not compelling. These three stories don’t flow together perfectly, nor do they dig as deep into the themes as they might. But, it’s an original angle on a historic moment with a few striking scenes that will stay in your mind.

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