Home » ‘June Zero’: Bearing witness to the death of Adolf Eichmann

‘June Zero’: Bearing witness to the death of Adolf Eichmann

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Jake Paltrow’s soul-searching “July Zero” starts in 1961 Israel with reports that Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann has been sentenced to death. Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity — a scale of cruelty that’s hard to grasp even for the characters here who shoulder responsibility for the court’s decision.

Micha Aaronson (Tom Hagi), an Auschwitz survivor, built the case against Eichmann; Haim Gouri (Yoav Levi) must bear the bleak irony of keeping the inmate alive until his hanging; and Shlomi Zebco (Tzahi Grad), a fearsome factory owner, has agreed to construct an oven to cremate the corpse so that Eichmann’s grave won’t become a Nazi shrine. Zebco’s apprentice is 13-year-old Libyan immigrant David (Noam Ovadia), a marvelous, hot-tempered scamp with expressive eyebrows, who must keep his morbid after-school job a secret even as his teacher berates him under the assumption that an Arab Jew is too ignorant and callous to grasp the rest of the nation’s pain.

The film structures these stories like a relay race, one citizen’s choice leading to the next, before they all collide in a deliberately underwhelming climax. Eichmann, as the audience already knows, will be executed and burned, his ashes dumped unceremoniously in international waters with all the pomp he deserved. Still, as Paltrow (Gwyneth’s brother), who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Shoval, makes his own case that history is built of small, individual actions that tend to be overlooked, he allows himself a bit of gallows humor. (One worker jokes that the prime minister might like his Eichmann medium-rare.) As cremation is prohibited in the Jewish faith, Zebco constructs the country’s first incinerator using, grimly, the schematics from an actual concentration camp. Nevertheless, Zebco’s only hesitation is that he’d prefer to burn Eichmann alive. “I want to hear his screams,” he leers. “More beautiful than Wagner.”

Zebco is no hero. He did things immediately after the war that even his allies call terrorism. Like the other characters, he’s a fictional creation. But the horrors he brags about, like the bombing of the King David Hotel that killed 91 people, are real. These are the tensions the intelligent script sets out to examine. The movie isn’t preaching anything as simple as pacifist nonviolence; rather, it aims only to note that the scales of justice cannot balance one man’s sins against millions of people’s need for an appropriate (and legal) punishment. Having kidnapped Eichmann from Buenos Aires, the Israelis now in charge of the murderer’s care feel obliged to adhere to an ethical rule book that runs counter to the moral violations he represents.

Eichmann appears in the film, but the actor is uncredited and you never see his face in full. There’s a bit of vengeful comedy when the cinematographer Yaron Scharf introduces him feet first on the toilet over the sounds of Beethoven’s “Pathétique.” Later, as Haim watches Eichmann while he sleeps, the film turns horror-movie red as the paranoid chain-smoker frets over his inert body like a first-time mother. Is Eichmann still breathing? Are assassins slipping into the prison to kill him?

As Micha sighs, one result of the Third Reich’s inconceivable body count is that he and his fellow survivors had a hard time convincing people that any of it even happened — the depravity was just too big. The testimonies that got Eichmann convicted were a major moment in engraving the facts into the public record, in getting the rest of the world to hear and believe. When Micha travels to Poland to tell his own story to a group of visitors, Paltrow restrains himself from filming any reenactments. Instead, he makes the simple yet dramatic choice to have the camera travel in time with Micha’s memories of being beaten, capturing the way he moved, stood and ran.

Shortly after, there’s pair of powerhouse monologues framed as a conversation between Micha and a Jewish Agency employee, a young woman named Ada (Joy Rieger). Micha explains what drives him to keep living in his trauma; she counters that becoming a ghetto tourist guide turns him into a circus freak show. “I don’t want ‘Never forget’ to become ‘Only remember,’” she argues. The two can’t come to an agreement, and it’s likely the audiences exiting the theater afterward won’t, either.

Unrated. At Landmark E Street Cinema. Contains mature themes, a glimpse of Eichmann’s body on the gallows and a shot of his charred skull. In Hebrew and Spanish, with subtitles. 105 minutes.

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