Is a deep fascination with the Holocaust healthy? Writer-director Gil Kofman asks that question in his upcoming film Memory Thief (trailer here), opening in New York May 9th. There might be a thin line between empathy and morbid obsession, but Kofman’s protagonist Lukas veers so far into the latter territory, it is not at all a close call.
It is probably safe armchair psychology to diagnose Lukas with an under-developed personality. Most of his interaction with people lasts mere seconds in his job as a freeway toll collector. When a toll casually tosses Lukas a copy of Mein Kampf, the impressionable loner nearly falls under its spell. However, Zvi Birnbaum, a Holocaust survivor passing through his lane happens to see Lukas reading it and offers to buy it in disgust. Rebuffed, he later returns with a copy of his videotaped survivor testimony, setting in motion an obsession that will obviously have tragic consequences.
Though Birnbaum’s tape has a profound influence on him, Lukas is never able to discuss it with him, as he passes away shortly after their encounter. Following his new-found fascination, Lukas takes a part-time job at a Holocaust foundation. He might even have a shot with Mira Zweig, a woman he meets at Birnbaum’s funeral, if he can start acting less creepy.
Yet, we know there is something fundamentally off about Lukas from the start. Still, Kofman deserves credit though, for not completely stacking the deck against Lukas. We suspect fairly early that he is prone to delusion, but we also see that is not a bad person, generously sharing his limited resources with a needy family in his building.
To say Thief treads on some delicate ground would be an understatement. Watching Lukas playing survivors’ numbers in the lottery is uncomfortable enough. When he shaves his head and has his own arm tattooed, the film becomes quite disturbing. The filmmakers do, however, make a good faith effort not to be exploitative in their treatment of the Holocaust. No archival images are used, instead Thief relies on survivor interviews, conducted and filmed by Kofman, putting the focus on reactions in the here and now, rather than the actual horrific events. Whether that strategy works is open to debate, even within the film itself. At one point, the father of Lukas’s potential girlfriend, himself a survivor, tells him: “the Holocaust was not about those who survived, but those who did not.”
Jerry Adler (the genial killer in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery) gives a remarkable performance as Zweig in the film’s strongest scenes. Adler expresses pathos and humanity, but his Zweig is never reduced to a stereotype of nobility or suffering. Lukas though, is a cipher by design. Mark Webber brings a measure of sympathy to an odd variation on the obsessive psychotic. Watching his downward spiral raises many questions about who this person really is, but Kofman declines to supply any answers.
Ted Reichman’s soundtrack notably heightens the eeriness of the film without being obtrusive. It brings to mind some of the minimalist film work of John Zorn, which is appropriate given Reichman has recorded for Zorn’s Tzadik label. His use of John Herbert’s bass and Dave Shively’s vibes establish an air of foreboding in the opening sequence. At times, Reichman’s Claudia quartet colleague John Hollenbeck adds some effective percussive accents and Anthony Burr’s bass clarinet sounds appropriately doleful, but the music always remains safely in the background.
Thief is not a perfect film. A Taxi Driver-like subplot about Lukas stalking a Spielberg-esque filmmaker seems tacked on and distracting. There are some fine performances though, particularly from Adler and Rachel Miner as his daughter. Ultimately, the ambiguous tone of the film is disconcerting, making for an unsettling viewing experience. (It is probably worth noting that Thief is distributed by 7th Art, one of the leading distributors of Jewish and Holocaust related films.)
This is definitely dark, provocative filmmaking, which audiences will likely be digesting for days after their initial viewing. It opens in New York at the Quad May 9th, and in LA May 30th.