The Memory Thief (US 2007, dir. Gil Kofman) allows us to explore the ethical problems involved in all forms of memory. Discuss.In our current day and age, we encounter memory everywhere we go. With this, however, there can be problems with the way that we both perceive memory, and the method of application of said memory with the receiver, especially in relation to that of media. In this case study, I plan to explore the significant memorial themes involved in media’s relation to the Holocaust, an event that took place during the years of World War II, in which the Nazi German regime, led by Adolf Hitler, took part in the systematic murder of just under six million Jewish people, most of which were ethnic Poles. The Holocaust in relation to both memory and media is drawn upon as the main theme of Gil Kofman’s 2007 directorial debut, The Memory Thief; which follows the character of Lukas, a lonely toll booth operator that over time becomes obsessed with the with media itself being a main piece in the puzzle of this erosion. In this case study I hope to explore the film itself, looking at how memory and media in the story helps us identify and look into the ethical problems that come about when we look at memory, while also trying to approach each type of memory in correlation to the chronological order of the film as to avoid confusion. In addition to this, I plan to look at some recommended readings from authors such as Aleida Assman, Alison Landsberg, Marianne Hirsch and James Berger in relation to transnational memory and the Holocaust to support this case study. It should be noted that there are serious storyline spoilers in this case study.One of the many ethical problems in relation to memory is that of conflicting approaches when it comes to the idea of transnational memory in relation to the Holocaust. The idea of ‘transnational memory’ is an idea expanded upon by Aleida Assman in an article for the European Review, in which she focuses on the Holocaust as a main example of transnational memory, saying ‘…55 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, there was general agreement that the murder of six million European Jews should become a common memory and, in turn, that this memory should inform the values of European civil society and protect the rights of minorities (Assman, 2014).’ This idea is played with and explore in the film, in a rough handful of scenes. The first of which depicts Lukas, the main character of the film, reading a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf during his shift as a toll booth operator, which causes a Holocaust survivor to berate him for doing so, giving him a concentration camp testimony on videotape the following day, so as to enlighten him on what happened during that era of history, seeing as the main character is almost being perceived as reliving the wrong side of the memory. When Lukas reads that this survivor has passed away via an obituary following the event, he decides to attend the funeral, to the confusion of Mira, a relative of the deceased who gets onto him for not knowing the survivor. But upon showing her the testimony tape, she drops the argument and he stays for the procession (The Memory Thief, 2007). The inclusion of this character and the copy of Mein Kampf is almost an introduction to the events of the Holocaust, with the issue of people not bearing witness to national history from both the perpetration and the victim’s sides of the story. This example of transnational memory which reflects on the potential issues that it brings is both shown as a positive and a negative, as the transnational memory is explored in a way that provides wider emphasis on the topic in general, providing focus on both the perpetrators and the victims of the conflict, and in a contrast to the later part of the film, puts the idea of transnational memory in a positive light for a moment, due to the way in which it explores these themes from a neutral standpoint. However, slightly contrasting my point, it can be seen as negative that Lukas’ character, a generic American man with no relation to Western European or Jewish family, decides to suddenly take on memories which are almost semi-exclusive to those whose families were part of such events, which can be seen as offensive to some, but what this approach also highlights is that Lukas wants to take these memories to enlighten himself with the historical events that affects Mira’s social group, and at first innocently raise awareness to such a tragic time in history.Collective and trans-generational memory are two ‘memory themes’, if you will, that also appear in the film, with the main backdrop being attributed to that of the Holocaust. This is found in various characters’ backgrounds, Lukas’ eventual obsession, and the existence of the Holocaust organization that the aforementioned main character gets a job at, whose main focus is archiving testimonies from survivors who had once been held at the camps. The concept of collective memory stems from Aleida Assman’s ‘Memory, Individual and Collective’, an academic article for a journal about the many forms of memory, which, she writes, ‘in other words, is receptive to historical moments of triumph and defeat, provided they can be integrated into the semantics of a heroic or martyrological narrative (Assman, 2006).’ I will now attempt to present examples of these memory themes, and the ways in which Kofman’s film demonstrates these.This idea of collective memory mostly appears in Mira’s collectivity, which can easily be picked up in the film through the introduction of the character of Mira , who we see is collective with survivors of the Holocaust (who, as we discover later in the film, falls victim to Lukas’ obsessive behaviour), seeing as her father was a survivor, and has a recollection of the events due to what she has been told by him over her life, even if she wasn’t there to witness it herself. The defeat of her ethnicity back in the 1940s as part of a historical event that took place adds to the collective guilt that they feel not being able to stop it. This guilt can be too much sometimes, which is well demonstrated towards the end of the film, in a scene wherein Lukas attempts to interview Mira’s father, in a very obsessive way. The guilt that he feels upon recounting these memories, especially due to Lukas’ obsession with the Holocaust begins to build, at which point in a scene after the interview happens, Mira storms into Lukas’ house demanding that she know what he said or did, as her father decided to take his life after the interview, simply due to the feelings that he had to explore in such a way. This does show a negative side to memories in all shapes and forms – if someone pressures you to recollect a memory that you just simply want to forget (any form of trauma, abuse, violence, etc), the problem of guilt starts to come about because you don’t want to recount it but you have to, leading to feelings of negativity. In addition to this, transgenerational memory is easily represented by the main underlying theme of the film – the holocaust itself. With the survivors heralding memories from their own generation, again, these are passed down to the younger generation – evident through the characters of Lukas and Mira over the course of the film. Being around the older generation results in those memories being passed on and absorbed by those of a younger age, demonstrating the power of transgenerational memory through character. As the film progresses, we begin to see the power of this form of memory passed from a generation that bore witness to such a tragic event in history onto one that hasn’t, entirely oblivious to what happened back then.Political and transnational memory is also an underlying of the film. Political memory is explored by T.G Ashplant in an academic journal article which focuses on commemorating war via memories. An interesting point he raises is that there are people, who, as a group, come together to remember in small remembrance groups, saying ‘…in a transitional space between the formal organisations of civil society and the informal networks of family and kin, was Jay Winter has termed ‘fictive kinships’, referring to particular groups of survivors, small-scale agents who form what he calls ‘families of remembrance (Ashplant, 2000).’ This is evident in the film, through the eyes of the Holocaust-related characters in the film, from Miranda’s father’s collective group of survivors, as well as the organisation. These ‘small-scale agents’ have come together through the events that they have gone through as a group, essentially reflecting the idea of the families of remembrance that Ashplant has coined in his article, and this is shown in a positive way as people both collectively come together to remember such historical events from their past; this combined with the appearance of the organization which has been designed to help archive testimonies shows the positivity behind this theme, seeing as it helps to preserve such memories between their social group, which can even then be presented to other social groups as a form of collective memory. The concept of post memory also comes into play within political memory, with Marianne Hirsch describing a great example of it as ‘ the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they “remember” only as the narratives and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right (Hirsch, 2001)’. This is presented in the film by the relationship between Mira and her father – again with him being a survivor of the Holocaust, she grows up with remembered ‘narratives and images’, that over time they become memories, all the same as the ones that her father probably remembers. In addition to this, there is a potential ethical issue that is brought up by Hirsch in her writing, in which she describes it as a ‘relation to the oppressed or persecuted other for which postmemory can serve as a model: as I can “remember” my parents’ memories, I can also “remember” the suffering of others,’ before going onto say that ‘…these lines of relation and identification need to be theorized more closely, however—how the familial and intergenerational identification with one’s parents can extend to the identification among individuals of different generations and circumstances and also perhaps to other, less proximate groups. And how, more important, identification can resist appropriation and incorporation, resist annihilating the distance between self and other, the otherness of the other (Hirsch)’. Through the example of Lukas learning about the Holocaust, it can be seen from the survivor’s point of view as a form of appropriation, and trying to seek comfort Another problem is the issue of identification in relation to prosthetic memory. The idea is best explained by Alison Landsberg in her 2004 book, Prosthetic Memory; ‘By prosthetic memories I mean memories which do not come from a person’s lived experience in any strict sense (Landsberg, 2004).’ This is a theme that occurs throughout The Memory Thief, essentially forming a crucial part of the storyline as it relates strongly to Lukas’ obsession with the Holocaust and memories of such. There are many scenes in which this is explored, the first of which is where Lukas asks Mira to go out with him, at which point she agrees on the condition that he stops obsessing over the Holocaust, which he doesn’t, evident as the film progresses. This theme becomes evident as the story progresses when he joins the Holocaust organization, a business whose purpose is producing interviews with survivors of the genocide for archival purposes. As Lukas develops his skills under the organization, he develops a very dangerous obsession with the Holocaust, resorting to posting pictures from the concentration camps on his wall, and trying his luck in the form of purchasing lottery tickets, using ID numbers of the survivors as his numbers on ticket. the interviews of which he observes, even writing letters to a director who has directed a film about the event. Another set of scenes that explore this concept in The Memory Thief take place toward the later part of the motion picture, in quite a few scenes, with the most obvious examples during the ending of the film, wherein Lukas starts to believe that he is the last holocaust survivor after Mira’s father kills himself due to pressure from Lukas to interview. He gets an ID number, the exact same of those of the survivors, before going on to attack a group of neo-nazis, in which he is beaten up in retaliation, ends up being scolded by the woman in the hospital bed next to his mother, of whom he is accused of not being her son, before he strips himself of his clothing, passing his shoes to a co-worker and embarking on a self-confessed ‘death march’ in a striped prison uniform (The Memory Thief). These final scenes highlight the issue of identification in relation to prosthetic memory, as Lukas becomes so obsessed with the overall idea of the Holocaust, that in a form of self-breakdown, he forgets who he is and becomes all he knows – the Holocaust. This also highlights a wider issue of the misidentification that people have when engaging with prosthetic memory – believing that because they may read or witness a historic event via media, that they have the same recollection of events as those that were actually there. This follows on from the original point highlighted by Landsberg in her 2004 book, her original idea of the prosthetic memory being that of which memories one hasn’t witnessed becoming implanted in someone – Lukas is an extreme example of the living prosthetic memory. This is evidenced over the course of the film he loses all sense of who he is and whatever memories he may have possessed before becoming all-absorbed with those of the Holocaust, which also exhibits the issue of self-identification amongst those who have witnessed harrowing events – to briefly summarise, once you absorb so many memories of an event over such a short time frame, you end up feeling as if you were there – with Lukas’ character development being an extreme example of this.But why does this happen to Lukas? In order to understand this, we need to look at him in general. His character is essentially a blank slate – a very basic human being who serves little to no purpose working a toll booth, absorbing every memory that is thrown at him – from the man who hands him the copy of Mein Kampf, to the survivor giving him the testimony tape, even to the point of his obsessive-compulsive behaviour with that of the Holocaust and even that of what we believed to at first be his mother, though as we discover later on, she’s essentially just a random catatonic lady whom Lukas speaks to, via whom he gets his problems out of the way. But whilst this is unbeknownst to us at the beginning, he isn’t well (The Memory Thief). To conclude, there are ethical problems affiliated with the idea of memory in all forms, many of which are unbeknownst to us when we face such things. It’s only when you begin to analyse and study such memories that you begin to notice the issues involved in it. Gil Kofman’s The Memory Thief is a film that attempts to explore said issues in quite a constructive way, with a character development that presents these issues very well for a motion picture, demonstrating the problems that come with the different forms of memory through key parts of the story, such as businesses like that of the Holocaust organisation, with the event itself penultimately being the main theme of the story as it progresses. Using historical events and national reflection as themes for a film can be tricky, but the problems that can be brought up when it comes to demonstrating different forms of memory are well-presented by Kofman through his directing, and through the roles played by the cast. There aren’t many motion pictures that explore the haunting aftermath such events can bring about in people, and this film is one that truly resonates with the examples presented by the authors in these references.References:The Memory Thief (US 2007, dir. Gil Kofman)Landsberg, Alison (2004) Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Berger, James (2007) ‘Which Prosthetic? Mass Media, Narrative, Empathy, and Progressive Politics’, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 11/4 (2007)Assmann, Aleida (2014), ‘Transnational Memories’, European Review 22/4Assmann, Aleida (2006a) ‘Memory, Individual and Collective’, in Robert E. Goodin and Charles Tilly (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 210-224.Hirsch, Marianne (2001) ‘Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory’, The Yale Journal of Criticism 14/1: 5-37.