Film Review: Six Million and One

In David Fisher’s coruscating film, his discovery of a memoir by his late father, a Holocaust survivor, sparks a journey back to the camps with his siblings—who aren’t sure how much of this dark past they want to uncover.

Some of the most discomfiting imagery in films about the Holocaust comes not from wartime footage showing the savage effects on the prisoners or even the ghostly sites themselves. What creates the most emotional dissonance is more often the sight of these places of unbelievable butchery now sitting in well-manicured European suburbs, woven fully back into the fabric of everyday life. It begs the question: How does one live in the shadow of the unimaginable? In David Fisher’s emotional and acidic documentary Six Million and One, he digs into this question on a broader level, in effect asking: What is the point of memory? What and whom does it serve?

Not long after the recent death of his father Joseph, David discovered a memoir of his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Nobody had ever seen it. In an attempt to come to grips with Joseph’s experiences, David enlists his two brothers and sister to journey back to the place in Austria where Joseph was imprisoned the longest. As is obvious from the film’s first scene—a squabbling free-for-all in a van—Joseph’s other children aren’t at first nearly as excited about this prospect. David’s more sarcastic brother Ronel grouses that they could have gone to a chalet and enjoyed themselves instead.

Although Joseph was initially sent to Auschwitz, he spent most of his captivity at Gusen 1, a slave labor camp in Austria. Today, a neighborhood has been built on top of the site. The Fishers stroll through its neatly tended streets listening to an audio tour of the area, which points out the mansion that was once the camp’s entrance. A shed stands where the crematorium was. A quarry nearby that was used by the camp is soon to be covered up by a housing project. Digging deeper, the Fishers are given access to the factory tunnels that still burrow underneath the neighborhood. There in the darkness, the four of them sit and talk about Joseph.

Throughout his elegantly crafted film, David serves as the quiet interlocutor who allows his brothers and sister to vent their feelings. While he reads selections from Joseph’s memoir—whose stark descriptions of the brutal conditions and choking presence of death and clear, concise style are remarkably vivid—and insists on uncovering these wounds, the others wrestle with how much they want to know. “I don’t need this Holocaust trip” to know about Joseph, his sister argues. Ronel is the most reluctant to engage in what veers at times close to a group therapy session, railing against the clichés of Holocaust imagery and debating the value of the enterprise. But in the impassioned talks they have in the tunnels or aboveground in a now-beautiful forest where so much evil once happened, the image of their father seems to snap more into focus.

These eruptions of family strife and child/father issues remain impressively non-exploitative throughout. Part of this is due to David’s serene style, which gives the Fishers time to explore their surroundings and allows the past to seep into frame. He doesn’t come up with anything resembling an answer; the film seems to know that laying a neat summation on the unresolved agony of Joseph’s memoir would be trite. Like the saddened American soldier David films talking about how liberating a concentration camp left him with PTSD decades later, the Fishers have no easy answers for the past. It simply needs to be lived through.