Lukas (Mark Webber) surveys the testimonials of Holocaust survivors in Gil Kofmans The Memory Thief
Appropriating stories of survival and loss
By Steven Snyder
Is Lukas a monster?
That is the question that pushes The Memory Thief towards its harrowing finale, as writer-director Gil Kofman holds this young man up to the light, twists him this way and that, and asks the audience to pass judgment. In the process, we find ourselves measuring our own morals and behaviors against his.
The memories Lukas (Mark Webber) eventually stealsexperiences he appropriates out of a desire to understand and mournare those of Holocaust survivors. Its a subject he doesnt know much about, living out a tedious life as a worker in a highway tollbooth. But all that changes when one day a racist driver tosses a copy of Adolf Hitlers Mein Kampf into the booth. Later, flipping through the book, Lukas is accosted by an elderly Jewish driver who is disgusted by the sight of a neo-Nazi. Determined to set Lukas straight, this elderly driver throws a video tape into the booth.
Lukas is stunned when he gets home, pops it into his VCR, and finds himself watching the first-person testimonial of a survivor. More than simply moved to tears, something within Lukas is transformed forever, revealing an apparently genuine, softhearted response to stories of unspeakable pain and cruelty.
He starts to volunteer at the foundation that is recording these testimonials, and heading out on assignments to visit survivors in their homes. The deeper he immerses himself into this world, however, the more obvious it becomes that Lukas is not just sympathizing with the pain of these people, but finding his own form of emotional release. He starts to watch video after video, and, while on assignment, coaches survivors about how to perform for the camera. As he does, it becomes clear that this tollbooth worker isnt merely empathetiches addicted.
In short order, his passive obsession takes a very active turn. He shaves his head, buys a mezuzah, and tattoos numbers into his arms. He even seeks out neo-Nazis to beat him severely so he can emulate the struggles hes witnessed on film.
Lukas is suffering from some form of mental disorder, theres no doubt about that. Nevertheless theres something about his full-fledged commitment to his obsession that makes it difficult to simply dismiss him as a kook. As his self-inflicted punishments grow more and more severe, its clear that Lukas is determined to feel what Holocaust victims felt in order to ensure that he doesnt just hear the story but appreciate the full ordeal. So in one breath, the audience wants both to shun the guy, to recoil from his grotesque behavior, and to admire his dedication to the cause.
Actor Mark Webber, who some may recognize from the film Broken Flowers, only pushes this contradiction further. Psychologically, he is vicious in the way he manipulates those hes filming, unleashing a form of psychic assault on their mental scars. But physically, he is surprisingly timid and passive. Hes a frail, bored, lonely man, and in his quest to adopt this issueto own the idea of being the perfect survivorits hard not to notice a parallel to the way our culture operates today, the way that cable news channels trade in the tales of victims, whether its the victim of a polygamist cult or the daughter who was locked in the cellar by her father for decades.
For his part, Kofman, in a remarkably dense and layered first effort, has made something subversive and scintillating. In Lukas behavior, we see the ways in which victims can be fetishized and how history can be appropriated, translated and misused. We also see the way that a lonely, empty man can cling to a cause as a sign of identity.
And yet its about more than just a broken man. Its a story about the Holocaust, about testimonials, about remembering and staying true to the past.
So is Lukas a monster? An empathetic guy with a heart two sizes too big? Or is he another person who uses someone elses pain to avoid his own?