A group of schoolchildren read a news magazine in "June Zero," a new film depicting the Eichmann trial's reception in Israel. (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)
A group of schoolchildren read a news magazine in "June Zero," a new film depicting the Eichmann trial's reception in Israel. (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

‘June Zero’: Film dramatizes Adolf Eichmann’s trial through the eyes of Israelis adjacent to it

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The story of the 1961 trial and 1962 execution of Nazi Adolf Eichmann has been told extensively, from Hannah Arendt’s contemporaneous book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” to the 2018 film “Operation Finale” and a long list of documentaries. Just last year, a new one that included never-before-heard confessions from Eichmann himself started streaming.

“June Zero,” the new film directed by Jake Paltrow, takes an ambitious and unconventional approach by focusing on a series of events outside of the trial itself.

Presented almost entirely in Hebrew, “June Zero” also tells the story of a relatively early era in Israel’s history when Jews from many parts of the world converged there — captured through the perspectives of characters who represent that diversity and varying points of view.

“The film itself is being told from the point of view of a contested history” as experienced by different characters, Paltrow said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “And so when we think of testimony as it relates to the Holocaust in terms of the trial itself, or the Shoah Foundation interviews, it becomes a very interesting way of accessing the story.”

Eichmann, one of the main planners of the mass deportation and murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis, was captured in Argentina by Israeli intelligence agents in 1960 and brought to Israel to stand trial (an operation depicted in “Operation Finale”). “June Zero” tells the story through three characters: a 13-year-old Jewish Libyan immigrant to Israel, the Jewish Moroccan prison guard who guarded Eichmann’s cell, and a Holocaust survivor who went on to participate in gathering evidence in the case against Eichmann.

Eichmann appears as a character, although the audience never sees his face.

Paltrow is the son of the late director Bruce Paltrow and the veteran actress Blythe Danner and the brother of Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow. His previous directorial credits include 2007’s comedy “The Good Night,” 2014’s sci-fi film “The Young Ones” and the 2015 documentary “De Palma,” which he co-directed with the noted Jewish filmmaker Noah Baumbach.

One of the multiple perspectives he provides is that of David, the 13-year-old boy, who goes to work in a factory that manufactures bakery ovens. At one point he overhears plans by his boss to build an oven specifically for the cremation of Eichmann’s body. (Eichmann would be the first and only person to receive the death penalty in Israel — and cremation traditionally is forbidden in Judaism.)

“I had come across the detail of the one-time-use crematorium,” Paltrow said. “There was that detail, and there was something that most people, even in Israel, didn’t know, which was that no Ashkenazi guards were allowed to guard Eichmann during the trial.” Most of Hitler’s victims were Ashkenazi Jews.

“I felt that it was inherently dramatic and a way to engage in a story like this that might feel a little fresh,” Paltrow said of the oven.

Paltrow, who co-wrote the film with the Israeli filmmaker Tom Shoval, said he has a “pretty extensive” Hebrew vocabulary but is not entirely conversant in the language that dominates the movie. “June Zero” was shot mostly in Israel but also in Ukraine, before the wars in both countries.

“We committed to making the movie this way … out of a sense of it just being the best way to do it in an intuitive sense,” he said. “We wanted to make it in the place where this happened, and we wanted to make it with actors [who lived there]. It seemed like the thing I would have to adapt was me.”

The “June Zero” title is a reference to how Israelis referred to the date of Eichmann’s execution so that it would not be commemorated in future years. Nevertheless, the trial, which was televised and featured extensive first-hand testimony by survivors, was a watershed event in Israel. Until then, the young country had been reluctant to discuss the Holocaust or confront its impact.

The trial “collapsed the dam of shame for Holocaust survivors in Israel,” said Paltrow.

When asked what lesson the film’s story might offer at this moment in history, with a war in Israel following what people around the world have noted was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust, Paltrow pointed to the era when “June Zero” was set.

“That sort of pre-’67 moment … was a very beautiful time before things were going to get much more challenging,” he said, referring to the Six-Day War and the near-debacle of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. However, just four years after the Yom Kippur War, Israel and Egypt were making peace and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was addressing the Knesset.

“Trying to reinvest in those perspectives that can try to bring some sort of peaceful future are essential,” he said. “And I hope that’s something that people won’t let go of.”

The film sports the logos of the Israel Film Council and the Ministry of Culture and Sport, but Paltrow said both government bodies had little to do with the film creatively.

“I guess it’s part of the mandate that these logos go on the film, sort of at the end, but no, I had no interaction with them at all,” he said.

Paltrow, who grew up in Los Angeles, said that while he didn’t grow up in an especially religious family, they celebrated the holidays, and he decided that Judaism was “something that I wanted to explore” when he was around 10 or 11.

“So I prepared for a bar mitzvah and had it. And the link has remained. And I think in some ways when you’re a child, you don’t fully understand necessarily what the link is,” he said of his relationship to Judaism.

“I have found as I’ve gotten older, it has grown and in many ways has strengthened,” added Paltrow, whose father came from a long line of rabbis. “What I found more than anything was a link to my father and his father and this idea that we’re connected through time together. It’s sort of an aspiration to be like these people that you admire, that you feel are people that sort of strive toward a certain, by their standard, sense of enlightenment.”

Before its theatrical release this week, via Cohen Media Group, “June Zero” had a lengthy run on the Jewish film festival circuit.

“It’s been very nice to show the movie” to Jewish audiences “where you have people engaging with the movie with no or very few walkouts,” Paltrow said. “And I think people found it emotional and even funny. That’s everything that I think we intended to achieve, so it’s very gratifying.”

“June Zero” plays July 5-7 at the Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema, 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.

Stephen Silver

Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributor