(23/08/07)The Memory Thief (2006) follows the story of Lukas, a young man who seeks to escape his catatonic past and present through Holocaust fantasy, transcribing survivor testimonies and aspiring to conduct his own interview. Audiences expecting to be lectured will be surprised and compelled by the piece. Unlike many films that take the Holocaust as their subject, The Memory Thief is neither sanctimonious nor exploitative.

For first-time film director Gil Kofman, connection with the Holocaust was through his father-in-law, himself a survivor. In writing the script, he strove to honour those who did and did not survive the Holocaust by actively avoiding sentimentality and emotional manipulation of the audience.

"We also avoided using any Holocaust archive footage of the victims or the bodies, or the all too evocative footage that George Stevens took when he liberated the camps. I wanted all the horror to come from the testimonies themselves. It’s amazing how every time the movie screens, the audience can tell real testimonies from actors’ performances. It really gives the film an entirely different density."

Both survivors and actors are performing, but what is it that makes the genuine survivors stand out? "It’s a different kind of performance," muses Kofman. "I think the survivors perform in the realm of [Austrian poet Rainer Maria] Rilke’s Blood Memory, where the pain has been lived and forgotten and can now resurface as second nature. The pauses are there, and the triggers are apparent, but they are dictated by trauma, not by studied learning or casualness."

"Fantasy is a cheap man’s empathy", warns one of the survivors in the film, and Lukas eventually absorbs himself entirely in his fantasy, taking on the identity and psychic legacy of a concentration camp inmate. Many people at post-screening Q&A sessions have asked Kofman whether this pathology really exists. Kofman always points them to Benjamin Wilkomirski, whose mountebank memoir Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood was embraced by critics, Holocaust historians, survivors and general readers. It was hailed as a masterpiece and a classic even after it had been exposed as a fraud.

Speaking about actor Mark Webber as the choice for the lead role, Kofman says: "A friend of mine, Burr Steers, who directed Igby Goes Down, suggested I look at Mark. I saw some of his work and thought he was incredibly versatile – and knew that he did a lot of theatre, which I thought would be important to a film where you need to hold the audience’s attention with non-verbal, non-plotty moments."

Webber’s wide palette of physical expression ranges from the subtle to the kinetic, evoking silent film icons such as Buster Keaton. "Mark never overplayed stuff, which I loved. He knows film – is always aware of where the camera is and what a close-up can do. He was also pretty amazing at knowing where to tap into the scene emotionally, considering we shot out of sequence. It’s as if he’d plotted his emotional trajectory well in advance", says Kofman.

Playing an equally crucial part in the orchestration of the central character’s downward spiral was editor Curtiss Clayton, who also worked on Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66. With both films, Clayton’s approach is measured and elliptical, and his holes and hiatuses add a deeply engaging naturalism to Memory Thief.

"Curtiss came on the project about a year after I edited the film down from two hours and 40 minutes to 95 minutes," says Kofman. "So a lot of the fatty storylines were already cut out, which allowed him to focus on nuances and italicising performances, and most important of all, plotting and grading Lukas’ descent in precise stages, like the Road to Calvary. Ultimately, he didn’t just polish the film and burnish performances, but gave the film a unity that it much demanded. He found small moments and let them breathe. His loyalty and devotion to the project were unmatched: he appreciated the film and believed in it before anyone else."

Hitherto an enfant terrible of American theatre, known for black comedy and satire, does Kofman hunger for future success through a different medium? "I’ve breathed the vitiated air of commercial failure for so long it’s hard to picture myself as successful ever. The hard thing is to move onto new work and get immersed again".

The Memory Thief will next be seen at the Sydney Underground Film Festival on 10 September and then at the Indie World Film Festival in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, which takes place between 5 and 11 October. UK premiere TBC.