Lukas, the main character in The Memory Thief, goes through what one could diplomatically call a psychological metamorphosis. He is a gentile who goes off his rocker while boning up on the history of the Holocaust and ultimately winds up ascribing onto himself the psychosomatic status of a Holocaust survivor. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but see it as a loose remake of a South Park episode from last year. In the episode, Stan’s father accidentally uses the n-word on national TV, forcing Stan to try and convince the town’s only black kid, Token, that he understands the pain and suffering the word has caused him, in order to save face. No matter how many examples Stan forges and indignities he raises in a feigned effort to legitimize his capacity for compassion, Token remains unimpressed. Finally, at the end of the episode, Stan admits he doesn’t get it, and explains that he, as a white person, can never understand the true feelings the word dredges up for black people. “Now you’ve got it,” Token says. The episode gets a ton of mileage out of the seeming contradiction between two presumed maxims of American political correctness: first, that everyone is supposed to be equal, and second, that because everyone is not, those who have greater social leverage can’t fully know the experience of those who do not. In their own cracked libertarian way, Trey Parker and Matt Stone both skewer and celebrate straight white male Stan’s path toward enlightenment by way of ignorance.
Memory Thief, though working in an entirely different context and through a protagonist who is far less likely to be seen as a representation of the SWM standard of normalcy, is another case study delving into the hubris and insult of trying too hard to feel someone else’s pain. Lukas (Mark Webber, in a bravely dislikable performance) is shown at the beginning of the film as a lonely young man who doesn’t appear to have any particular personality, perhaps due to his menial work as a tollbooth operator, perhaps because his mother (apparently his last remaining family member) is catatonic and unresponsive. Whatever the case, one of the passengers in a truck driving through his toll tosses Lukas a copy of Mein Kampf. He reads it almost out of boredom until a Jewish driver sees it, bitches him out and hands him a videotape of his own remembrances of the Holocaust. In a matter of days, Lukas gets a job with the documentary filmmakers who taped the driver’s interview and are filming all other survivors willing to step in front of a video camera. He catalogues their miseries, begins to wear a yarmulke and attends bar mitzvahs of those he doesn’t know.
It doesn’t take long for what started as an inquisitive bit of ethnographic research to devolve into a taxonomy of cultural exploitation. In one perhaps slightly broad sequence, Lukas uses the identification numbers the Nazis tattooed on the Holocaust survivors’ arms as lottery numbers. And his behavior continues to creep people out: He starts keeping his dairy separate from his meat in the refrigerator, forcing drivers with German-made cars to go through someone else’s toll booth, making a pink triangle for his gay friend as a Christmas present (he then shows off the yellow Star of David he made for himself in an attempted gesture of camaraderie—“You should wear that so you don’t get into trouble”). “Are you even Jewish?” one Holocaust survivor asks Lukas point blank. “Kind of,” he answers.
At the same time, writer-director Gil Kofman’s film, which splices the commandment to “never forget” with behavior straight out of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, doesn’t exactly distance itself from some of the less irritatingly self-serving examples of Lukas’s outspoken empathy. At one point, he goes to a screening of the latest Holocaust epic to come from Hollywood, one filmed by a Jewish director far more famous for his cash-cow horror movies. While a character in the film undergoes a Sophie’s Choice moment, Lukas is shown shooting daggers with his eyes toward one of the other audience members who reacts to the onscreen tragedy by loudly chewing popcorn. (Kofman appears to be working off the theory that filmed entertainment can only go so far in presenting history, and he also understands that genre filmmaking can reveal more ideas about human suffering that are no less important or compelling for being nebulous or metaphorical.)
There’s also a ring of truth to Lukas’s tossed off, if uncouthly worded, theory that “Auschwitz isn’t just for the Jews anymore.” Memory Thief chews more than it can swallow, and ultimately cops out a little bit by having Lukas admit, under duress, that his Holocaust mania may be the result of the fact that he can’t remember his own past. A more daring film would’ve suggested that some American WASPs believe their own cultural and personal histories to be less interesting than those from other minority groups, at least so far as the world of entertainment goes. As someone who embodies two elements of the SWM trinity and occasionally has found himself thanking Christ he can at least embrace the difference on the third, I understand where Kofman’s going with this.