“Didn’t you hear? Auschwitz isn’t just for the Jews anymore.” or The Memory Thief
Posted by archangelinamerica on May 11, 2008
Lukas (a gentile) works at an LA tollbooth. As he watches the random and endless stream of vehicles pass him by, he ruminates over a variety of topics in a letter he is composing. He displays a strange combination of antisocial detachment coupled with intense compassion for those who appear helpless. When a neo-Nazi inexplicably throws a copy of Mein Kempf at him, he begins to peruse it with the same level of detachment. It appears all too obvious where this will lead. That is, until an angry Holocaust survivor (Zvi) rails at Lukas and his obviously inappropriate reading material. Zvi returns with a copy of his Shoah testimony for Lukas. Shortly after, Lukas sees Zvi’s obituary in the local newspaper and attends the funeral (uninvited). He discards his copy of Mein Kempf as haphazardly as it was handed to him. Lukas develops a strange compassion and empathy for Holocaust survivors and develops a relationship with Zvi’s niece. He even volunteers to work with an institution recording Shoah testimonies. Unfortunately, his zeal for empathy quickly takes on a disturbing psychopathic quality. It soon becomes evident that Lukas is adopting a new identity in an attempt to empathize with survivors of the Holocaust. His strange journey though raises an interesting question though: Had he not met Zvi, would he be empathizing with a very different cause?
Lukas’ strange journey has some shocking conclusions. His identity is forged from suffering and he develops a disdain for those that appear to lack the same levels of sympathy he possesses. Yet, he is only able to develop attachments to the helpless. It appears that Kofman is attempting to force his audience to ask themselves some questions about their relationship to the Holocaust and especially to the stories that are told (and retold) about it. This is not surprising if you know the director. Kofman is the child of Holocaust survivors. He noted his own interest in telling a story in which redemption is absent (perhaps as it was for victims of the Holocaust). The randomness of survival is reflected in the randomness of Lukas’ encounters at his tollbooth. Yet, Lukas’ empathy does more harm than good. Kofman asks, “Can anybody identify with suffering in any situation?” And I wonder if Kofman is writing a commentary upon the commoditization of suffering. Is it wrong to generalize the struggles of the Jewish people? Must one personally suffer to empathize with another victim? Kofman actually noted that humor can be used as well as pathos to identify with a foreign culture. Kofman may be asking us if there is a danger in over identification with the tragic elements of our history (or any history for that matter). Or he may be asking if it is the most meaningful way of forging a connection. Lukas’ attempts to identify are so disturbing because he adopts an identity that is completely external. Kofman described it as akin to transvestism. Lukas adopts the outward qualities of a Holocaust survivor. But his attempt to take on the status of a survivor leads him down a predictably dangerous path. Kofman (though definitely Jewish) does not typically write stories about openly Jewish themes or experience and this is his first foray into the “genre.”
This is a difficult movie to describe as you might have already gathered. But it certainly leads to interesting discussions. And it is interesting to note, that the Holocaust testimonies in the movie are all from genuine Holocaust survivors and were taped by Kofman for this movie. There are some unbelievable elements and the performances are occasionally uneven. But the overall feel of the movie was very engulfing and I was drawn into the experience (perhaps in the way we are drawn to a car accident.) The Memory Thief may not be as exciting as Iron Man or as cathartic as Schindler’s List (obliquely referenced to) but it will leave a swirl of thoughts in your head and feelings in your gut. If you would like to continue the conversation, you can see screening of Kofman’s movie at San Francisco’s Red Vic Theatre through May 15. More information about the Red Vic is available at www.redvicmoviehouse.com. The film itself has a website at www.memorythiefmovie.com. And if you get to see it, please leave me a comment about it.