“The Good Night” helmer Jake Paltrow returns to Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival with “June Zero,” his first foreign-language production. In the film – picked up for sales by ICM Partners and Films Boutique – he takes a closer look at the trial and execution of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, hanged in Israel in 1962.
“My father [television and film director and producer Bruce Paltrow, who died in 2002] was a World War II history obsessive. Some of my earliest memories of watching television are of ‘The World at War,’ which later became something we watched together every year. It was all deeply rooted in his Jewishness,” Paltrow tells Variety ahead of the film’s world premiere.
It was never his intention to focus solely on Eichmann, however, or the much-publicized trial, even though he still finds it “relevant and intriguing,” he says.
“I find it uninteresting and problematic to try and make a ‘character’ out of him. We’ve seen that kind of thing and it usually ends up in the realm of Hannibal Lecter-type depiction,” he says.
“In our movie, Eichmann functions like the oil well in ‘The Wages of Fear.’ He is a circumstance, like the weather. Something to anticipate and to react to.”
Instead, Paltrow turns to the people observing the trial, reacting to it or following it through a local tabloid (“It’s based on a newspaper called Haolam Hazeh that was kind of like Charlie Hebdo meets Playboy meets New York Post,” he says). These include Eichmann’s increasingly nervous prison guard, a teenage Libyan factory worker and a police investigative officer, facing his own demons on a trip back to Poland after surviving Auschwitz.
“The deeper we went into speaking with some of the people involved in these events, the clearer it became that we would tell this story through peripheral participants. It’s like making a movie about the Lincoln assassination from the point of view of the costumers and stagehands at the Ford theater,” explains Paltrow.
“We don’t open with a card announcing ‘based on a true story,’ as I suppose we could. [But] we are stringing the story along a series of public facts: the verdict, the timeline of the appeal, that an oven was built for his body. What interested me initially was this detail of how they disposed of it, in a country and culture with no cremation.”
“I have never seen an Israeli film covering these perspectives before,” adds Oren Moverman, who produces the film alongside David Silber and Miranda Bailey.
Moverman – whose Richard Gere starrer “Time Out of Mind” opened the Czech festival back in 2015 – was especially taken with an intimate scene showing two characters wondering if following the war, Israel should focus on “never forgetting” or “always remembering” about the Holocaust.
“It was mind-blowing on the page and it’s mind-blowing on the screen,” he says.
“It’s about this pivotal moment when there is still a window to discuss the soul of a country. There is a way of looking at it as something political, but I read it as a spiritual argument. How do we continue to function as human beings, having gone through this tragedy? How do we exist? Who are we going to be? That dilemma never went away.”
“We don’t have an answer to what are the differences between commemoration and perpetuation when it comes to traumas of this nature. And how we teach our children about them,” adds Paltrow.
“It’s very much an exchange of right versus right. It’s a scene that tries to present differing positions without a resolution.”
Because of such complex exchanges or the film’s unexpected lightness, embraced by its co-writer Tom Shoval, “June Zero” shouldn’t be viewed just as a period piece, says Moverman.
“It’s not a relic that exists like an anecdote from the past. You can think about future trials, what they mean and how they are conducted, what is punishment and how does it really define a country,” he observes. Noting that the fact that it was partly shot in Ukraine, standing in for Poland, also brought a new resonance to the story.
“We were only in Kyiv for a few days and of course couldn’t foresee what would happen so soon after we left. I am in regular contact with a couple of our crew members and for the moment, they are safe,” says Paltrow.
“I understand the world has always been a brutal place and this campaign of murder and destruction doesn’t signal much hope for the future. Watching how the powerful contend with the process of losing their supremacy is a chilling reminder how little human instinct has evolved.”
“When you shoot something, you never know what kind of things will come into discussion later on. It’s one of the powers of cinema,” adds Moverman.
“I believe that [this film] can open up conversations about Israel and Palestine, about Russia and Ukraine, about various other places. I just hope they won’t become too depressing. Last time I checked, as humans, we still have the ability to laugh and cry at the same time.”