“The Memory Thief” is the flip side of Henry Bean’s ethno-identity drama “The Believer,” whose protagonist was a Jew-turned-neo-Nazi. In Gil Kofman’s disturbing “Thief,” a Gentile becomes so empathetic to the plight of Holocaust survivors that he becomes one himself — at least in his increasingly troubled mind. Specialty auds will respond, but tough subject matter will be a likely hindrance to wide theatrical.
Mark Webber, who seems to be one of the harder working young actors in indie world (“The Hottest State,” “Broken Flowers,” “Dear Wendy”), is the fractured Lukas, who works as a highway toll collector and is the kind of guy who can casually tie up traffic for miles, or absent-mindedly read a cast off edition of “Mein Kampf” while offending thousands of motorists. One who refuses to remain silent, the irate Zvi Birnbaum (Allan Rich) who was a prisoner at Auschwitz, returns to Lukas’ booth the next day to give him a taped copy of his Holocaust testimony. Lukas watches it, and begins his slow but inexorably immersion in Judaism, Holocaust culture — and insanity.
While helmer Kofman is making a trenchant argument that the Holocaust cannot truly be understood save by those who survived it — and, at the same time, should obsess us all — Lukas’ increasingly unstable, even ridiculous behavior tends to dilute the gravity of his obsession.
When Lukas starts refusing to let Volkswagens through his booth, it’s funny, but you start thinking about the fine line Kofman is walking between farce and solemnity. The danger always seems to lurk that “The Memory Thief” is going to burlesque the subject so dear to its heart. It doesn’t, but the simple mechanics of the drama are that when a young man goes mad, you have to question the cause. And there shouldn’t be any questions here.
But Lukas isn’t that well to begin with: In voiceover, he addresses needy letters to his mother; we see him in a hospital, visiting the comatose woman who occupies so much of his time.
When Birnbaum dies, Lukas attends the funeral, knowing nothing about Jewish custom and offending mourner Mira Zweig (Rachel Miner), whose father (Jerry Adler) is also a survivor. Lukas’ awkward, insistent but well-intentioned attempts to interview Mr. Zweig, and his obvious sincerity about survivors’ experiences, at first touch her, then offend her and finally alarm her.
Kofman’s script is less than graceful, but the acting is good, particularly Webber as the unhinged-cum-ghoulish Lukas. It’s a particularly nettlesome role.
Production values are fine.