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In countless episodes from history, there are people in the margins of pivotal events whose stories are forgotten. Through fate or coincidence, ordinary folks become unintentional footnotes simply by knowing significant people or being near them at the right time. Obvious examples include doctors who valiantly tried to save heads of state from an assassin’s bullet, or club-goers who saw an about-to-be famous musician perform before they took over the world. June Zero, the new drama directed and co-written by Jake Paltrow, is an unusual ode to people who find themselves grazing the eternal. An intriguing concept, however, does not translate into a cohesive narrative about its thorny subject.
Paltrow and co-writer Tom Shoval set the film in Israel in the early 1960s, following three people who are adjacent to pivotal events. You may recall this is the period when the Israeli government caught Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, bringing him to trial for his crimes as the chief Nazi architect of the Holocaust. When June Zero begins, Eichmann has already been caught and his trial, which was broadcast across Israel, seizes the national imagination. The film begins by following David (Noam Ovadia), an energetic boy who has little interest in the trial, at least until he finds himself working at the factory chosen to build the oven that will cremate the Nazi (cremation is frowned upon by Jewish custom, hence the need for the authorities to seek outside help). Two things keep this vignette from being too grim: We see everything from David’s fractured point of view, while Paltrow and cinematographer Yaron Scharf shoot the material on 16mm film, which creates a vivid sense of tactile nostalgia.
Once we get used to David, seeing how his job gives him a sense of purpose, Paltrow shifts gears entirely. Now he follows Haim (Yoav Levi), a Moroccan Jewish prison guard who takes care of Eichmann during the trial. Unlike a coming-of-age film, the middle section is more of a prison thriller, depicting how Haim takes his job seriously and goes to extreme lengths to protect Eichmann’s safety, at least until it is time for his execution. Crucially, Paltrow never shoots Eichmann directly, obscuring his face and making most of his dialogue incidental (when he does speak, he sounds polite and meek). It is around this point where the point of June Zero calcifies: Once Eichmann is under Israeli custody, he becomes more of an idea than a man. Haim does not want him to live exactly, and instead feels that justice means that no vigilante can harm him because only the state must administer punishment. His Moroccan ancestry is crucial to this feeling since he (perhaps correctly) intuits that a Jew of European ancestry would not be able to guard him dispassionately.
The notion of Eichmann as an idea, a cipher for unfathomable trauma, further continues when Paltrow once again shifts his focus to Micha (Tom Hagi). As a Holocaust survivor of Polish ancestry, Micha finds himself as one of Eichmann’s interrogators, an experience that has an effect on him that he cannot fully articulate. Unlike a coming-of-age film or a prison thriller, the final section is more like a traditional art-house drama, one that relies on Hagi’s quiet, focused performance to suggest Eichmann’s legacy in more practical terms.
June Zero’s shifting perspective can be disorienting, even frustrating, as each of these three characters could merit a feature film on their own. Paltrow and Shoval cumulatively create a sense of unease—the story shifts are perplexing to the point of distraction. It is only upon looking at the whole, realizing there is a lack of confidence in each protagonists’ storyline, that we realize Paltrow has a tenuous grasp of the material. Eichmann’s execution has a profound effect on the boy and these two men, but by narrowing on their experience surrounding his trial, Paltrow avoids the kind of psychological insight that often adds depth or meaning to this type of historical drama.
Jake Paltrow, like his sister Gwyneth, is a descendant of Eastern European Jews. No doubt there is a personal component to June Zero, an attempt to reconcile the far-reaching, significant consequences of the Holocaust with how they affected regular people who cannot grasp how their stories fit into a larger narrative until much later. Nowadays we are in another pivotal historical moment, one where some American leaders might finally face justice for the crimes they perpetrated. That long, challenging process cannot be fully grasped in the immediate moment, particularly from people whose lives briefly touched the key players. If June Zero wants to convey these feelings, its meandering perspective ultimately diminishes their power—something that should frustrate the countless Davids, Haims, and Michas of the world.
June Zero plays at 7 p.m. on May 11 at Edlavitch DCJCC’s Cafritz Hall for opening night of the JxJ Jewish Music and Film Festival, which runs through May 21. jxjdc.org. $30–$180.