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Rubbernecking the Holocaust

by Naomi Pfefferman

May 29, 2008 | 2:30 pm

"While I always regarded [these relatives] with respect and awe, part of me knew I could never understand their pain and was thankful for this grace of innocence," Kofman, the 47-year-old filmmaker, said from the attic office of his Brentwood home. "And yet another part of me was endlessly curious and even indecorously fascinated with the nature of their singular suffering and loss."

In this way, Kofman says he is "unfortunately" a bit like the anti-hero of his debut feature film, "The Memory Thief," who becomes so obsessed with the grotesque details of videotaped survivors' testimonies that he is "virtually rubbernecking the Holocaust."

The fictional Lukas (Mark Webber) is a non-Jewish tollbooth worker whose only human contact is with passengers who breeze past his Southern California booth. The world literally passes him by -- that is, until a survivor tosses him a copy of his videotaped testimony. Lukas is so mesmerized by the tape that he lies his way into a position at a Holocaust archive, allowing his supervisor to think he is Jewish; he sneaks tapes home so he can watch them on multiple television sets in his apartment.


The trailer


As the young man surrounds himself with these talking heads, he spirals into psychosis, replacing his own memories with those of the survivors. Along the way, he stalks a popular filmmaker who has directed a "serious" Holocaust drama -- a not-so-veiled reference to Steven Spielberg and "Schindler's List" (although, Kofman said mischievously, "Our lawyer says he's not Spielberg, so I guess he's not").

Kofman -- who is also a writer of darkly comic, satirical plays -- insists he did not intend "The Memory Thief" to be a "bad-boy film," and the response from audiences (including survivors and members of his own family) has been positive, at least so far.

The movie is a "morally audacious and intriguingly original ... attempt to counter Hollywood's formulaic approaches to the Holocaust drama," Jeannette Catsoulis wrote in The New York Times.

It is "one of the first films to address the notion of Holocaust testimonials -- what these videos mean, the power they can have on those with or without a connection to the events, and the way they can be misused," the New York Sun noted.

Kofman intends his film "first and foremost to explore how we should transmit memories of the Holocaust." He questions the amassing of tens of thousands of testimonies: "The danger is when you do it simply to acquire, to hoard, as Lukas does in the film. But how many testimonies do we need? Some people think there is redemption in numbers. Yet, at a certain point, it's not just a question of volume, but how one relates to the testimonies."

"The Memory Thief" also critiques what Kofman calls "Hollywood's unchecked impulse to market trauma" by turning Holocaust stories into tales of heroism and redemption.

"Audiences want closure, but there is no closure with the Holocaust," he said. "I wanted to make a movie that not only resisted that impulse but called it into question."

Kofman, who grew up in Nigeria, Kenya and Israel before moving to New York at age 6 (his father was a civil engineer), says the movie began with a single, absurd image: a man purchasing lottery tickets with numbers jotted from the arms of concentration camp survivors. He envisioned the character undergoing a "Taxi Driver"-like transformation as he assumes a new identity: "Lukas is like a transvestite to Judaism," Kofman adds. "He dons a tallit and a kippah and perform rituals without any substantive element."

As a counterpoint to Lukas' faux identity, Kofman included testimonies of real survivors in his film; they are clips from interviews the filmaker himself conducted with Los Angeles-based survivors (one of them is the late Fred Diament, who took an active role in The "1939" Club and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust).

"I realized while cutting the film that I had to be judicious about how much of the testimonies I used," Kofman said. "The taped stories are so powerful that just a little goes a long way. Had I used too many, they would have overwhelmed the fictional story, and the narrative would have fallen apart."

Kofman says he told the survivors up front about his intentions and tried to be as respectful as possible during interviews.

But sometimes he guiltily caught himself thinking like the fictional Lukas.

"A survivor would show me his number or say something amazing -- and I would think, 'This is great for my movie,'" he recalled. "It was like I had this mercenary aspect." And, he added, "That deserves to be critiqued."

The movie opens May 30 at the Laemmle Theatres.

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