Memory Thief avoids sentimental view of Holocaust

Nobody objects when Hollywood uses its big bag of manipulative tricks to tell and sell a Holocaust story. But the rare American filmmaker who grapples with still-knotty, unvarnished truths rather than shallow sentimentality is liable to be lambasted or, even worse, ignored.

Award-winning playwright Gil Kofman is cautiously optimistic that his gutsy and unorthodox feature film debut, “The Memory Thief,” will be received and discussed in the spirit in which he conceived it. The film centers on a directionless, non-Jewish tollbooth employee who, after a chance meeting with a survivor, vicariously immerses himself in the most painful aspects of the Nazi genocide.

Although Lukas (played by Mark Webber) thinks he is honoring and preserving the memories of Holocaust survivors (as well as the 6 million), he is actually appropriating their pain in a misguided, unhealthy effort to create a meaningful identity.

“The idea of the Holocaust,” Kofman says, “has always been sacrosanct, especially in the Jewish community, and inviolable: This is what it is and God forbid you should talk about it in a different way that’s not reverential or that asks questions. That’s OK, but I think it’s also time for a dialogue to exist in terms of the transmission of the Holocaust, and how we absorb it and how we relate to it.”

“The Memory Thief” begins a one-week run May 9 at the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco.

Kofman was born in Nigeria to Israeli parents (his father was a civil engineer) who settled in New York when he was 6. After studying in the graduate film program at NYU, and graduating from the Yale School of Drama with an MFA in playwriting, he moved to Los Angeles in the early ’90s.

In “The Memory Thief,” Lukas feeds his obsession by volunteering at an archive that videotapes the testimonies of survivors. Kofman conducted his own interviews — fully disclosing how they would be used — and daringly integrated them in his fictional film.

“In a way, I’m appropriating a bit the way Lukas does in the film,” Kofman readily acknowledges. “It wasn’t just little snippets — it was an hour-and-a-half interview with each person and I edited it.

“A lot of times they just serendipitously said things that matched the congruence of the film — about luck, about surviving, they’d show me their number. Yes, there is a chance and an element of trivializing and using them, but at least there’s a critique of that in the film.”

Kofman knew he was treading on sensitive ground, and solicited feedback on his screenplay from experts. Geoffrey Hartman of the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale told him, “You’re running a moral risk there,” but applauded the finished film.

Unlike his creator, Lukas is unable to maintain an objective distance. He borrows tapes from the archive, transcribing and memorizing the testimonies, then buys a tallit and gets a tattoo. Once he’s started, nothing can derail his narcissism and myopia.

“He’s totally fetishizing,” Kofman explains. “He’s being a transvestite to Judaism. He’s putting on the prayer shawl. He’s doing all the rituals and the performative elements without the substantive elements.”

Kofman is an earnest, intense and articulate man who maintains that “The Memory Thief” doesn’t stem from some desire to be a “naughty boy.” At the same time, he knew he would raise hackles in some corners by broaching such touchy topics as Holocaust fatigue and Hollywood’s (read: Steven Spielberg’s) trademarking the genocide.

“Nothing is buried under the carpet,” Kofman says, which is both the film’s strength and the source of its unavoidable controversy. Lukas, in contrast, can’t connect with the Holocaust except through surface appearances.

“He’s rubbernecking the Holocaust, in a way, which is what we all do to a certain extent,” Kofman says. “We read about Darfur, and then the next day we’re so happy there’s a new tragedy to replace the old one. This way, we don’t have to really commit.”

“The Memory Thief” runs May 9 to 15 at the Red Vic Movie House, 1727 Haight St., S.F. Tickets: $5-$8.50. Information: (415) 668-3994 or

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.