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The Memory Thief Reviews

Released into theaters just two months after yet another European writer -- in this case, Misha Defonseca -- admitted her autobiographical account of life during the Holocaust was a total fabrication, playwright-turned-filmmaker Gil Kofman's unusual story of a troubled young man who becomes obsessed with Jewish suffering under the Third Reich arrives with even greater resonance. Though not directly addressing the strange phenomena of false Holocaust remembrances, Kofman's complex film examines the need many people feel to identify with the intense experiences of others, be it audiences for movies like SCHINDLER'S LIST or writers like Defonseca, literary poachers of other people's memories. Lukas (Mark Webber) is a clerk in a southern California toll booth whose job perfectly reflects his drab, marginal existence. The whole world literally passes him by with barely a glance, at least until the day Zvi Birnbaum (Allan Rich), an elderly German emigre with a number tattooed on his forearm, flies into a rage when he sees Lukas holding a copy of Hitler's manifesto, Mein Kampf. The book was tossed at him a few days earlier by another driver, and Lukas has been unthinkingly dipping into ever since, thumbing through it at night in his rundown apartment and even bringing it to the hospital where the woman he calls "Mom" (Karen Landry) lies in a catatonic state. The next time Zvi pulls into the tollbooth, he has something for Lukas: a VHS cassette containing the testimony he recorded for a Holocaust memorial project, a monologue recounting the inconceivable horrors Zvi witnessed in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Lukas is struck by the extremity of his experience -- he finds Zvi's suffering "purifying, attractive, even" -- but before he has the opportunity to return the tape, Lukas sees the old man's photo in the obituary section of the newspaper. Lukas feels compelled to attend the memorial service where he meets Zvi's niece, Mira (Rachel Miner), a medical student who just happens to work at the hospital where Lukas spends his afternoons. Lukas is attracted to Mira but even more fascinated by her father (Jerry Adler), another Holocaust survivor who, like Zvi, witnessed such horror and yet managed to live on in its aftermath. Clearly obsessed, Lukas lies his way into a part-time position at the Holocaust archive, telling his supervisor, Mr. Freeman (Peter Jacobson), he's a relative of Zvi Birnbaum and he's Jewish -- a lie Lukas begins to believe himself. Lukas wants nothing more than to interview the survivors himself, but Mr. Freeman first gives him the job of transcribing previously recorded tapes. Lukas begins absorbing the testimonies like a sponge, filling his apartment with as many TV sets and VCRs as he can find, surrounding himself with talking heads endlessly recounting days spent in hell. Mira is disturbed to find Lukas's apartment has become a shrine to unthinkable tragedy, and even more troubled to learn that he has no memories of his own life. The taped testimonies of people who have nothing to do with him have begun to serve as his own dreams and recollections. In the film's most pointed critique, Lukas becomes obsessed with a fictitious Hollywood director named Victor Horowitz who, after directing a string of blockbusters, has made a serious film about the Holocaust (sound familiar?). In his effort to discover the "meaning" of Auschwitz, an increasingly delusional Lukas naturally turns to a teller of fairytales who offers the world not just the horror but hope and redemption, things the real story of the Holocaust can never provide. Kofman resists this impulse, and while his film tends to talk over itself in its attempt to say all it needs to say on the subject, his film's uncompromisingly bleak vision is a bracing alternative.