A broiling-hot August day. Jaffa. A room that’s been redesigned to resemble a vocational school classroom, circa early 1960s. The boys and girls sitting at the shabby-looking wooden desks are remarkably quiet and well behaved. All are wearing a uniform of light-blue button-down shirts and dark pants. On the desks lay brown notebooks and old-fashioned wooden pencil boxes. Each item has been carefully selected.
On the walls are portraits of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Tzvi Tzur, the sixth Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. In the back of the room is a large wooden table laden with tools; saws, pliers and cutters hang behind it. The actors aren’t wearing surgical masks, but the entire crew on the set looks as if they're getting ready for surgery. The director, Jake Paltrow, is dressed like the actors – light-blue dress shirt, dark pants and work boots. Not out of solidarity, say his crew. That’s his usual outfit.
'Making a movie under the virus restrictions goes counter to the filmmaking experience. Cinema is based on human interaction, on subtle, intimate and emotional moments. And now we have to maintain distance all the time'Jake Paltrow
On the set, they’re preparing to shoot the main scene of the day – a clash between a pupil named David and his teacher, over the Eichmann trial that is being held in Jerusalem and is being broadcast live on the radio. While cinematographer Yaron Scharf and the crew set up the two 16mm cameras and the lighting (“We haven’t shot with film in seven years,” Scharf enthuses, about the classic format), one of the director's assistants, an Israeli, tries to get the children into the mindset of what’s happening. She has a specific instruction for them.
“You have to write an essay about Eichmann and the Nazis,” she announces. “Eichmann – you know what that is?” The kids look bewildered. “So Eichmann was a soldier in Nazi Germany. He was in the Nazi high command. He was the one who planned all the trains, the ones that took all the Jews to the – what do you call it? – the concentration camps. Okay? That’s how they destroyed 7 million Jews. It was the Nazis who wanted to destroy us, to destroy our people. So I need each of you to write four lines in your notebook – how you feel about this, what you know about it. Cool? Great.”
Six million, 7 million – everyone around is too busy with preparations for shooting the scene to correct her. Anyway, this is not a real lesson. The young actors, who are 12 and in seventh grade, actually haven’t learned much about the Holocaust in school yet. The coronavirus pandemic and all. Luckily, the director doesn’t know Hebrew.
'Movies get organized in the same way; it’s like a military operation. The things that’s a little challenging here is shooting in a Hebrew, a language I don’t really know, I know just some of it'
David, one of the main characters in the film, is played by Noam Ovadia. It’s his first movie and he has no acting experience; he wasn’t even in his school’s drama club. His mother, Smadar, who accompanies him to the set every day, says she decided a few months ago to sign him up with an acting and modeling agency “just for the heck of it.”
The very next day, they were asked to record an audition at home and to send it to a casting director. They were told it was for a significant role in a movie, but they didn’t know how big it really was. Smadar says she had a good feeling about it, but it took two sleepless months before they learned that Noam had been cast as David.
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In the scene, the teacher is shouting at David reproachfully: “Do you consider yourself to be part of the Jewish people?!” Between takes, Rotem Keinan, who plays the teacher, translates into Hebrew for Noam and the other youngsters – with patience and endless charm – the instructions the director, Paltrow, is giving in English. This is Keinan’s only day of acting in the production, but he’s on the set the rest of the time as Noam’s acting coach and translator. “Finally he understands why it’s important to learn English,” his mother says with a satisfied smile.
How did an American director come to be directing a Hebrew-language film in Israel about Israeli society at the time of the Eichmann trial? And in the midst of a pandemic, when borders are closed and movie theaters are in danger of extinction? During a lunch break, Paltrow agrees to say a few words, though he adds that he doesn’t like to talk about projects before they’re completed.
“Maybe it’s a kind of superstition,” he says with a smile.
That may be true, but it’s probably also because of warnings from the production's PR department not to make a peep until the promotional campaign for the film officially begins.
Cinematic 'side effects'
Paltrow, 44, was born and raised in Hollywood. His mother is actress Blythe Danner, who appeared in several Woody Allen films and in “Meet the Fockers,” among many others. His father, who died of cancer 18 years ago, was producer and director Bruce Paltrow, born into a Jewish family that immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe. Jake's older sister is actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
Paltrow’s career has included television (he directed episodes of “Boardwalk Empire” and “NYPD Blue”) and several cinematic projects. His first feature-length film, “The Good Night,” starring his sister, came out in 2007; his second one, “Young Ones,” came out in 2014. Since then, he also collaborated with his good friend, director Noah Baumbach, on a documentary about director Brian de Palma.
The idea for "The Oven," the film he’s working on in Israel, occurred to him a few years ago when something he read captured his attention: While Adolf Eichmann’s trial was being held in Israel – between April and December, 1961 – and Eichmann was in detention, an order was given to keep Holocaust survivors and/or their relatives away from him, for fear someone might try to assassinate him before the end of the proceedings. Consequently, most of the security guards who were stationed around the Nazi war criminal were of Mizrahi descent (from Middle Eastern and North African countries).
'As we go further into it there were other things that came out, like this young boy David Oren who took part in building the oven that was used to cremate Eichmann’s body'
“That’s a very unusual thing,” Paltrow says. “As we go further into it there were other things that came out, like this young boy David Oren who took part in building the oven that was used to cremate Eichmann’s body. But as the years passed, no one remembered, and people said he didn’t do it. It began to take shape around these characters and their stories, which were like side effects of the trial, without the movie being about Eichmann himself. I wanted to look at the way society reacted to the trial.”
Paltrow arrived in Israel to conduct research and met with people who were connected to the Eichmann trial. One was Michael "Micha" Goldman-Gilad, a Holocaust survivor who worked in the Israel Police’s Bureau 06, which was tasked with interrogating Eichmann and collecting information about him after he was caught in Argentina and extradited to Israel. Goldman also served as the personal assistant of Gideon Hausner, the prosecutor in the famous trial.
In the courtroom, one witness described how he’d seen an SS officer giving a Jewish boy from the Przemyl ghetto 80 lashes, and identified Goldman, who was present, as that youth. Goldman himself called people's disbelief of Holocaust survivors’ stories – something he had experienced when he arrived in Israel – “the 81st blow,” and that became the title of the 1974 documentary about the survivors by Haim Gouri, Jacques Ehrlich and David Bergman, the first in a trilogy.
Paltrow: “When I started my research and collected information, I realized that it’s not just a historic story. I understood that there are complex cultural layers here that I might be able to touch on just a little, but having not grown up in Israel, I wouldn’t be able to fully penetrate by my own. I knew I had to write this screenplay with someone from here.”
Paltrow's choice was director and screenwriter Tom Shoval, whose debut effort, “Youth” (2013), won the prize for best feature film at the Jerusalem International Film Festival and was a hit at numerous festivals around the world. Paltrow says they quickly developed “a great creative relationship.”
The plot of “The Oven” centers around three characters based on real people: First is the boy David, son of a family of new immigrants from Libya. He attends a vocational school and is sent by his father to work at the factory that has been assigned the secret mission of building the oven that will cremate Eichmann’s body after his execution by hanging. The oven is to be built according to a blueprint from a German company that had been involved in the construction of the crematoria for the Nazi death camps.
Next is Goldman-Gilad (Tom Hagi), the Holocaust survivor who took part in Eichmann’s interrogation. Third is Haim, one of the men assigned to guard Eichmann in jail. Haim is played by Yoav Levi, who took over for actor Amos Tamam after the latter had to go into coronavirus isolation just when shooting was about to start.
“We tried to give a 'panoramic' depiction of the Eichmann trial and his execution, not through the main characters but through the proletariat, through the people around the main show,” co-screenwriter Shoval explains.
“We wanted to show the great dilemma of the trial, which on the one hand brought to the surface the stories of Holocaust survivors, which Israeli society had repressed until then, and on the other hand – the uncomfortable feeling that the trial was akin to historical theater or a show trial. The three [characters'] stories go behind the scenes of the trial and convey this dilemma."
Adds Shoval: “In a sense, it’s a bit like the way Tom Stoppard wrote ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.’ He took marginal characters from 'Hamlet' and made them the main characters. The characters meet at crossroads that are the focus of history. The boy David was part of the construction of the oven and grew up knowing that he is one of Eichmann’s executors, but history left him out. He is the hero of his own story.
"Then there’s Micha, who was on both sides of the historical barricades, who goes from survivor to avenger. And the story of Haim, which is based on the story of the guard Amram Lusky, is perhaps the most interesting in the sense that the guards had to make sure Eichmann didn’t die before he was to be killed. The whole dynamic is very extreme.”
Though the screenplay of "The Oven" is based on true stories, the names and biographies have been changed slightly.
“We gave ourselves artistic freedom in all kinds of places,” Shoval explains. “The transition from reality to fiction always invites changes, but fundamentally, it happened. To me, the film is also about Israel maturing. The Eichmann trial was a historic act that marked Israel as an authority, as a state. And the script talks about how you process and present reality. What goes into the so-called canon, what’s important. And I also ask myself in retrospect: Are all the things I learned about history really the significant things that happened?
"During the research for the film, we understood that there are many versions of each incident, and it’s hard to know what really happened. These questions are only heightened with the coronavirus crisis that masks everything, that distorts everything – because what does the past or future matter, you have to live from moment to moment, and always two meters apart.”
The movie also touches on ethnic tensions. The kids in the vocational school class are Mizrahi and the teacher is Ashkenazi [of Eastern European descent]. And there’s tension surrounding how much they relate to the Holocaust survivors’ stories.
Shoval: “Yes, it’s definitely there. This is happening in the early 1960s and ethnic tension was very strong then. People didn’t talk about it politely. I call this a film about the laborers who did the dirty work of the Eichmann trial. When you look at it this way, you expose the differences between how people looked at things.”
How did the fact that Paltrow is not Israeli and does not live here, with the memory of the Eichmann trial, affect work on the screenplay?
“There were things that were more black-and-white to him. I told him: Reality is not like this, it’s more complicated. To his credit, he came very prepared. He read a lot, watched things, met with a lot of people – Amos Oz, for one – who gave him a perspective on the period. He watched Israeli films from that time and even became a fan of [then-famous Israeli director and actor, later rabbi] Uri Zohar. So he didn’t stay disconnected. Of course there are places you can’t really reach. I wasn’t around in the 1960s, either. I was always trying to make sure that things didn’t fall into stereotyping in terms of the way a foreign eye sees us.”
Paltrow and Shoval wrote the screenplay in English, thinking the movie would be shot in the United States with American actors. However, after the Israeli Metro production company, headed by local producer Dudi Zilber, joined forces with the American producer, Israeli-born Oren Moverman, the project became more and more Israeli.
“As we got further along with the script, that really felt like one of these things where, if we’re going to do it, let’s do this authentically” Paltrow says. “Initially my instinct was to do it in my own language but there were so many elements that were out of control, so at least the language of the film should be the language in which it all happened.
“The result is that the only one who doesn’t have full control of what’s happening on the set is me, because I don’t speak Hebrew. But I trusted myself to manage with that. I know the screenplay well because I wrote it, and everyone on the set helps me too. The things I thought would be the most challenging are the things that are making the movie much better.”
You’ve put yourself in a fragile spot.
Paltrow: “I’m not so sure, there’s something about making movies that thrives on the weird and unusual. It’s healthy for movies. So if this is the weirdest thing about this movie, I hope it’s a good thing.”
For his part, Shoval says that while the American filmmaking industry is much more accustomed these days to hearing foreign languages – thanks to all of Netflix's international productions – the debate about whether to do the film in Hebrew went on until the last minute.
It would be kind of weird to shoot a movie on real film for the sake of the authentic look of the period, and at the same time to use English-speaking American actors.
Shoval: “In their world, they have to make a movie that will get bought. That’s what they’re thinking. A foreign language isn’t as big a deal as it once was, but it’s still an issue commercially. Ultimately, the correct decision was to film in Hebrew to preserve authenticity. Nonetheless, the movie isn’t trying to depict the actual reality. It’s not ‘The Battle of Algiers’ or another movie like that.
"The film is more about the gap between events and the way they are remembered. And in terms of the survivors’ testimonies too: How was the Holocaust perceived before they spoke out and how was it perceived once they started speaking about it? The question is what remains. What remains of the extravaganza of Eichmann’s execution? What was its effect?”
Chaos and connections
Paltrow has been in Israel almost continuously since last December, when preparations for filming went into high gear. When the coronavirus lockdown was announced, he went back to his family in the United States for a short time, and then returned to Israel when the restrictions were eased. After being forced to find a replacement for Amos Tamam, the filmmakers still have to cope today with the constant threat posed by the virus. So, outside of the shooting, Paltrow tries not to leave his apartment much. He avoids crowded places and doesn’t get together with people.
He says the hardest thing for him is being far away from his wife, artist Taryn Simon, and their two kids, who are back in New York. Aside from that, he feels like he’s developed a kind of routine in Israel and gotten to know a lot of people. He’s already grasped the key Israeli maxim about how everyone here is connected somehow.
“Everyone knows everyone here and everyone wants to help you. I found that out during the research phase and that’s how the film came together. When I came here then, every person I met for breakfast, for instance, would tell me, ‘You must talk with so-and-so.’ And by that night I’d met the person they recommended, and then that person referred me onward.”
Nor did it take Paltrow too long, it seems, to adjust to the difference between the polished and professional American film industry and the somewhat chaotic world of cinema in Israel.
“Movies seem to have their natural gravity, no matter where you go, whether you’re in South Africa or Israel. Movies get organized in the same way; it’s like a military operation. The things that’s a little challenging here is shooting in a Hebrew, a language I don’t really know, I know just some of it.”
And shooting during the pandemic.
“Of course, the virus. It adds to the intensity of everything, but it’s been a challenge for everyone, not just me. For example, everyone’s suffering from the heat because of the masks. We’re surprised each day anew by how tough the heat is. Also, making a movie under the virus restrictions goes counter to the filmmaking experience. Cinema is based on human interaction, on subtle, intimate and emotional moments. And now we have to maintain distance all the time.”