June Zero Review | A Film of Halves, Thirds, and Have Nots

by Andrew Parker

Director and co-writer Jake Paltrow’s anthology film June Zero is half a good movie and half a colossal misfire, which is a strange thing to say about a story that has been split into thirds. A work of historical fiction set in Israel just after the trial of notorious Nazi official Adolf Eichmann and in the time leading up to his execution, June Zero looks at a pivotal point in the country’s history through the eyes of two unlikely and marginalized voices who wouldn’t normally get to share their viewpoints, and one that is more conventional and poorly incorporated. The first two stories being told are compelling and thoughtful, while the third and the connective tissue that closes the film doesn’t add much to the conversation about what it all means. Paltrow’s film doesn’t fall off a cliff, but it does let down what could’ve been a more intriguing and timely film calling into question the true biblical meaning of “an eye for an eye.”

Unfolding primarily across 1961 and ’62 – starting on the day of Eichmann’s conviction and ending not long after his execution – June Zero looks at more personal stories around the margins of history. David (charismatic newcomer Noam Ovadia) is a young Jewish-Libyan kid from a poor family in desperate need of work to help support his family. David finds an unlikely gig cleaning parts for a company specializing in ovens, run by a cantankerous war hero (Tzahi Grad), and in the process becomes an integral member of the team tasked with building the crematorium for Eichmann’s dead body. Meanwhile, Haim (Yoav Levi), a Jewish Moroccan police guard, is reaching a breaking point with his stress level after being asked to care for Eichmann while he’s still behind bars. Acting as Eichmann’s “bodyguard” and trying to do things by the book, Haim has to be sure that no Jews of European descent get too close to the prisoner, or else they might kill him before the execution can be properly carried out (or possibly before his case goes before an appellate court).

The stories of David and Haim are fascinating, and come from the perspective of Middle Eastern Jews that are frequently looked down upon by Israelis of European origin. This marginalization, connection to faith, and the importance of their tasks make for compelling narratives looked at from an outsiders perspective. These characters process the emotions of those around them in a different way, and Paltrow is more than willing to parse the moral issue over whether killing to avenge death and historic atrocities is truly justice. June Zero in its earlier moments bristles with cultural tension, with Paltrow’s decision to shoot using Super 16mm film stock adding a distinct period authentic vibrancy that favourably recalls the work of Abbas Kiarostami’s earliest efforts. There’s a sense of place, history, and tension to June Zero that fascinates, in spite of the fact that Paltrow refuses to avoid obvious visual symbolism (the irony of constructing a German oven to dispose of a war criminal, an injured eye turning blood red, an admittedly intense hair cutting sequence).

But all of that focus is undone with Paltrow and co-writer Tom Shoval’s third story, focusing on one of the trial’s key witnesses (Tom Hagy), a holocaust survivor travelling back to Poland for the first time since leaving Auschwitz. The change in scenery not only has little connection back to the other narratives, but it’s the sort of story where everyone speaks in lengthy speeches that hit as inorganic and intellectual rather than humane. The subject at hand in this segment asks an interesting question about what happens when tragedy turns into tourism, and whether or not keeping such trauma alive is painful or empowering. But it also deviates into less satisfying territory, turning June Zero into a lecture rather than a film that seeks to understand history.

June Zero attempts to right the ship at the end by returning to its original story for the conclusion and coda, but the momentum has been effectively killed and the perspective shift impact what was initially fascinating. This collapse in focus and desire to abandon course mid-stream sinks Paltrow’s film so much that one wishes June Zero had been a series of stand alone shorts rather than a single feature. When strung together, it just doesn’t work.

June Zero opens at Varsity Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, July 5, 2024.

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