Review: June Zero Offers Nuanced, Thoughtful Answers to Difficult Questions and Complicated Histories

Set in 1961 Israel—specifically when the verdict and sentencing of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the chief architect of the Holocaust, was announced—June Zero offers three different perspectives of the key historical event while also asking divisive questions about legacy, remembrance, and the beginnings of the “never forget” mindset. The movie uses specific examples and stories to get at broader issues of who and what should and should not be commemorated, as well as taking control of one’s own story and deciding whether you wish to share it with the world or not.

Directed by American filmmaker Jake Paltrow (who co-wrote with Tom Shoval), the film begins simply enough with the story of a 13-year-old Libyan immigrant named David (a lively performance from Adam Gabay), whose father gets him a job in an oven-making facility for bakeries. He doesn’t seem too interested in the work until he overhears his boss (Tzahi Grad, Big Bad Wolves) talking to someone secretly about constructing a special oven to dispose of human remains, which doesn’t exist in Israel because cremation isn’t practiced in the Jewish faith. With the Eichmann verdict and death sentence all over television, radio and newspapers, David gets excited about the prospect of being even a small part of such a historical event, and he becomes a model employee, even coming up with a solution to the problem of the oven not getting hot enough to do the job completely. The stomach-turner for some working at the facility is when the oven blueprints arrive and they turn out to be the same German-designed ovens used in concentration camps. But David’s boss, a former military man and known savage, has his heart set on being the one that supplies this particular oven.

Then the film shifts to the prison where Eichmann is being held, where we meet two other important characters: Haim (Yoav Levi), Eichmann’s Jewish Moroccan prison guard who is never allowed to leave the prisoner’s side and who has no direct connection to he Holocaust (the Israelis wouldn’t allow Holocaust survivors to guard Eichmann for fear they would understandably want to kill him prematurely); and Holocaust survivor Micha (Tom Hagi), an Israeli police investigator who was one of the first to interview Eichmann after he was captured. The two men have very different stories and only spend a couple of minutes together in the same scene, but it’s a key moment in the film.

Haim is in a car accident when we first meet him, so he spends most of the movie with a possible concussion, making him even more paranoid in his work than he normally would be. When a new barber arrives to cut Eichmann’s hair, the barber must get permission from Haim before each snip. He’s even there to witness the actual execution, of which we only see the aftermath, but it’s enough to get across the significance of the moment.

Meanwhile, Micha travels back to Poland, where he spends time at Auschwitz, to give a presentation to a group of visiting dignitaries about his experiences in the Polish ghetto and at the camp, during which we discover that his path crossed Eichmann’s once before, when he was a child. Shortly after his stirring speech, he has a conversation with a woman (Joy Reiger) from the Israeli commission that brought him there, warning him that the group wants to make his visits an annual event. She doesn’t want him to feel he has to relive his trauma every year for tourists like some sort of zoo exhibition. But he pushes back, telling her that talking about his past is the only thing giving him the emotional release he needs to live normally. He believes these stories should be told forever because even his fellow Jews didn’t believe him when he first arrived in the newly founded Israel because his stories were too horrible.

In addition to the themes of remembering trauma versus forgetting and never speaking of them again, June Zero also deals with things that don’t deserve a legacy, such as the day Eichmann was executed. A tabloid featured prominently in the film designated his death day as June Zero so that it wouldn’t become a prominent anniversary in years to come, and his ashes were eventually scattered at sea so that a shrine wouldn’t exist for people to visit (although he’s a character in the film, we don’t ever get a clear shot of Eichmann’s face). Shot in 16mm film by director of photography Yaron Scharf, the film is inventive in the way it treats what could have been a straightforward historical drama and makes it a work that emphasizes the importance of holding onto the parts of history that hurt us, as painful as that might be. The issues in this powerful film are complex, but for those involved, the answers are as clear as they are different.

The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.