Film-Forward Review: THE MEMORY THIEF

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Mark Webber as Lukas
Photo: Seventh Art Release

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THE MEMORY THIEF
Written & Directed by Gil Kofman
Produced by Gil Kofman & Marika Van Adelsberg
Director of Photography, Richard Rutkowski
Edited by Curtiss Clayton
Music by Ted Reichman
USA. 95 min. Not Rated
Released by Seventh Art Releasing
With Mark Webber, Rachel Miner, Jerry Adler, Allan Rich & Peter Jacobson

Can empathy get out of hand? French President Nicolas Sarkozy stirred controversy recently by proposing that fifth graders learn about the lives of specific children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, similar to how the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles invite visitors to follow the fate of an individual as an educational tool.

Highway toll taker Lukas (Mark Webber) follows a similar path in The Memory Thief, but literally through his life. Bland and sweetly innocuous, he has the most mundane and invisible of jobs, barely noticed even when he stops traffic to rescue a runaway dog on the highway. So heís surprised that an elderly man (Allan Rich) angrily reacts to seeing him reading the copy of Hitlerís Mein Kampf heíd been handed by a passing motorist. When the same older man drives up to the tollbooth again, he flashes his Auschwitz tattooed numbers in Lukasís face and insistently offers him a mysterious video.

On the tape, Zvi Birnbaum has recorded his horrific Holocaust experiences: ďI wish I could forget all this, but I canít.Ē Soon Lukas canít either. He seeks out more information through Zviís pretty med student niece, Mira (Rachel Miner), and her father (Jerry Adler), and insinuates into their lives, adopting their family history as his own. He also becomes obsessed with contacting film director Victor Horowitz, a thinly veiled satire of Steven Spielberg, who has moved from popular horror film entertainment to the serious horrors of The Selection. Lukas gets a part-time job transcribing and recording survivorsí testimony at a Holocaust archive, like Spielbergís Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, even though his supervisor, Mr. Freeman (Peter Jacobson), warns of the emotional toll, but Lukas yearns for it: ďI like being affected. It makes me feel responsibleĒ Ė a response as ambiguous as how he avoids admitting he is not Jewish. Miraís father dismisses Lukasís interest as ďa cheap manís empathy,Ē but the young man resolutely takes on a more and more Zelig-like fantasy Jewish identity, like a recent bogus memoirist, gradually becoming a dark mirror image of the skinhead Jewish apostate in Henry Beanís The Believer.

Webber is very effective in a Taxi Driverís Travis Bickle-like transformation as Lukas loses touch with his own identity. Even as it is gradually revealed that his bizarre behavior has been a pattern in his life, the extreme manifestation recalls the transmitted posttraumatic stress disorder reported by the children of survivors. Playwright Gil Kofman, in his feature film writing and directing debut, challenges head-on the universalization of genocide sympathy as Lukas repeats his mantra of ďAuschwitz is not just for the Jews.Ē Kofman creates striking images as Lukasís obsession multiplies, surrounded with walls of Holocaust pictures and television sets simultaneously playing a cacophony of vivid testimonies of atrocities. (Kofman conducted and filmed the seven survivor interviews). But the director questions the assumption that dredging up memories is catharsis for survivors, like his in-laws, who have been able to get on with their lives, and their children; or the educational value of relating to victims, whether from Bosnia, Rwanda, or Darfur, when it can vicariously feel like participating in one of those Asian extreme horror movies. In The Memory Thief, he has found a thoughtful, creative, and disturbing way to treat the numbness of Holocaust fatigue. Nora Lee Mandel
May 9, 2008

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