Survivor Madness: Gil Kofman’s The Memory Thief

This is a dull psychological thriller every bit as dispensable as any of the lurid offerings of Gil Kofman’s fictional counterpart.

Survivor Madness: The Memory Thief
Photo: Seventh Art Releasing

“I have a hard time remembering my own past, so I remember the pasts of others,” says Lukas (Mark Webber), a 20-ish toll collector explaining his increasingly pathological identification with the sufferings of Holocaust victims. From the moment he meets a Survivor passing by his booth, he becomes obsessed and it’s not long before he’s poring over endless videotaped testimonials, papering his wall with newspaper clippings and having a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm—all to fill up the banality of a completely ordinary life. In The Memory Thief, first time director Gil Kofman is concerned not so much with the events of the Holocaust itself, but their availability to anyone interested in co-opting the suffering of others for whatever psychological gain they can extract. But, if Kofman uses Lukas’s obsessive identification to raise provocative questions about the responsibility of the ordinary citizen for the world’s sufferings—as well as that of the filmmaker/videographer to document those sufferings—he quickly loses sight of his thematic concerns and the film soon gives way to a rather rote depiction of the onset of madness.

From the start, what’s emphasized in Lukas’s character—his empathetic curiosity about the lives of others and his dissatisfaction with the banality of his own life—are the qualities that make him susceptible to an extreme form of identity displacement. His imaginative speculations about the people who pass by his booth and his willingness to help a neighbor avoid eviction establish his ability to visualize other people’s situations while his lack of a personal history compounds the sense of the emptiness of his daily existence. He’s a blank slate onto which he can inscribe any identity he chooses. (His only activity outside his job—and the film’s only hint at any character background—consists of his frequent visits to a brain-dead woman at the hospital whom he claims is his mother, but the film is careful to call this claim into question). His natural empathy makes him instantly attracted to the sufferings of others and, when presented with the pinnacle of suffering in the form of the Survivor testimony, he’s provided with the exact opening he needs to begin fashioning his new identity. (It is significant, too, that Lukas is not Jewish, since the legacy of the Holocaust is not one that he naturally inherits, but a burden he must consciously assume.)

The first indication that Lukas’s interest in the Holocaust has moved from an outsider’s fascination to a subjective identification comes in an early scene when he watches a video testimonial and Kofman frames him at an oblique angle to the television, presenting him as a mirror image of the on-screen Survivor as both sip simultaneously from an identical glass. From there, the identifications become considerably more explicit and by the time Lukas has shaved his head and tattooed a number on his arm, the film has reduced him to just one more generically-rendered screen madman. Kofman seems interested in probing the limits of one person’s empathy for another’s suffering, but Lukas reaches these limits pretty early on; from there, the film has nothing left to do but to chronicle a rather ordinary descent into madness, complete with increasingly anti-social behavior in the workplace, obsessive redecoration of the walls with newspaper clippings and paranoid closet-hiding, in short all the familiar tropes worn thin by endless screen treatments of the same material.

Kofman, whose wife’s father, grandfather and uncle all escaped the camps, has called this film his “effort to somehow connect with these Survivors,” but what is disturbing about his film is that he treats the Holocaust more as a generic, if absolute, symbol of suffering than as a specific historical event, the atrocities reduced, for the most part, to a mere narrative contrivance. What’s worse is Kofman’s decision to use footage of actual Survivor testimonials, a decision that could be justified if the film were truly about the legacy of the Holocaust, but not in a picture that uses the event as a mere springboard for an exploration of madness. Kofman does provide a single, moving exception to this abstract treatment of suffering through the character of Mr. Zweig (Jerry Adler), a Survivor who has gone on to become a successful businessman, raise a family, and even retain enough faith to become an adult Bar Mitzvah. But, when he agrees to record a testimonial for Lukas, to relive the horrible events for the first time in years, he finds the burden of memory too much to assimilate and commits suicide shortly after the shoot.

Which brings us to one of the film’s more interesting concerns: its interrogation of the filmmaker’s responsibility to document real-world suffering. Lukas takes a job at a Holocaust Archive that records testimonials of Survivors, a practice generally considered beyond reproach, but one whose positive virtues the film looks at with more than a little skepticism. Even before Lukas’s recording of Zweig’s testimony results in the older man’s suicide, the whole process is revealed as at least mildly exploitative with the star videographer aggressively prodding the Survivors and then indulging in dismissive post-shoot comments about his subjects. The film also addresses the role of the star filmmaker in dealing with the Holocaust by introducing the (unseen) figure of Victor Horowitz, Hollywood bigshot and director of genre films who, à la Spielberg, has used his professional leverage to make a serious Holocaust film.

Initially lauded for his efforts by the film’s characters, Horowitz’s qualifications to make such a picture are soon called into question. What right, the film asks, has a privileged Hollywood A-lister to appropriate the untold sufferings of millions of people and present them as one more example of movie spectacle? In fact, Kofman suggests that Horowitz’s Holocaust pic (and by extension, Schindler’s List—name-checked earlier in the film) is just a more extreme version of the type of sordid horror movies he usually makes—it’s just that this time he’s chosen an even greater horror. What perhaps Kofman doesn’t realize is that he’s implicated himself in this critique: if Horowitz abstracts the Holocaust into a generic representation of atrocity, Kofman does roughly the same thing. What promises to be a provocative questioning of the continued role of the Holocaust in contemporary life ends by reducing the events to a de-specified embodiment of 20th-century suffering and places them in the service of what devolves into a dull psychological thriller every bit as dispensable as any of the lurid offerings of Kofman’s fictional counterpart.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Andrew Schenker

Andrew Schenker is an essayist and critic living in upstate New York. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Village Voice, Artforum, Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and others.

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