Watching first-time director Gil Kofman’s “The Memory Thief” is a singularly disquieting experience, but isn’t that the point?
The film, which incorporates the videotaped testimonials of actual Holocaust survivors into its fictitious tale of a tollbooth collector fixated on concentration-camp atrocities, is not so much about Hitler’s systematic slaughter of the Jews as it is about wounded people struggling to cope with profound loss.
For Lukas (Mark Webber), who occupies a lonely Los Angeles tollbooth between visits to his catatonic mother, the Holocaust holds no special significance, at first. On the contrary, he seems blissfully naïve, unburdened by any personal connection to Nazi Germany’s death camps or their survivors.
That begins to change when a passerby casually tosses him a copy of “Mein Kampf.”
Another driver notices the book and insists that Lukas burn it; when he resists, the old man (Allan Rich) returns with a tape of his Holocaust testimonial, and an obsession is born.
Lukas, a gentile, isn’t stirred by compassion so much as a masochistic appetite for other people’s suffering.
Hungry for more tapes, he talks his way into a part-time position with the Holocaust Foundation, and before long his bedroom resembles a shrine to the 20th century’s darkest hours. He seeks out survivors for interviews, even coercing one (Jerry Adler, “The Sopranos”) into an anguished recollection of his own family’s brutal slaying.
Lukas insists that his motives are pure, that he wishes only to preserve some record of history, but his need for knowledge is reckless and predatory.
At his core, Lukas is emotionally barren, feeding off his prey by appropriating their pain and treating their most haunting memories as if they were his own. Does he believe it? He certainly seems to. As his obsession degenerates into a self-destructive form of madness, Lukas begins to mimic the thick accents and tortured mannerisms of the survivors in his collection of videos; he even dons a prisoner’s outfit embroidered with the Star of David.
Witnessing this transition is a difficult and somewhat thankless task, despite Webber’s convincing turn as a self-mutilating zealot. It’s probably no accident that Lukas recalls a kinder, gentler Travis Bickle, and Webber (“Broken Flowers”) embodies him with some of the same wild-eyed fury that Robert DeNiro brought to his career-defining role in “Taxi Driver.”
But even a performance as robust as Webber’s cannot maskthe underlying ambiguities of “The Memory Thief.”
Clearly, Kofman, a playwright who married into a family of real-life survivors, is making some statement about our morbid fascination with the past, but what exactly is he saying? Are we to believe that historians are, on some primal level, no better than voyeurs, reveling in the macabre tragedies that befall their subjects?
Maybe, maybe not. In the end, “The Memory Thief” poses a handful of intriguing questions but fails to offer any meaningful answers.
The Memory Thief (2 and half stars)
Starring Mark Webber, Rachel Miner, Jerry Adler, Peter Jacobson, Allan Rich
Written and directed by Gil Kofman
Running time 1 hour 33 minutes