There are no precise figures for the number of Jews who made it out of German death camps during World War II, only guesses and broad estimations; it was far too rare an occurrence for there to be any hard data. So the survival of Josef Fisher, whose son, David, an Israeli filmmaker, has made Six Million and One about his father’s Holocaust experience, is nothing short of astounding. In the early 40s, Josef was forced into hard labor (the excavation of underground airplane factories) at both Auschwitz and Gusen. He survived; hundreds of thousands of Jews died doing the same work. Josef is the “one” of the film’s title.
As David and his four siblings (three of whom are featured in this documentary) were growing up during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, it often seemed to them that their dad must have been the only survivor. The Holocaust was so closely linked with death that life after it began to seem unimaginable, and so, by extension, did their father. But a few years back, David found his dad’s war-survival journal in the family attic and decided to make a film about it. Six Million and One is a record of his trip through Austria to film his siblings’ reactions — and the heated debates they cause — as they visit every location their father wrote about after surviving the death camps.
The Fisher children, all in their fifties and sixties, are not on the same page about the meaning and necessity of the trip. David’s older sister, Esti, and his youngest brother, Ronel, are the doubters among them. The two make for a sharp-tongued and caustic pair; they’re by turns indignant and sarcastically cynical about the prospect of learning anything more about their father just from visiting the sites of Austria’s museum-preserved camps, with their crumbling walls and awkwardly-maintained (sometimes by gentile Austrians) death chambers. David and his younger brother Gideon, who is clearly the most sentimental Fisher child, are optimistic that following the journal’s path will give them some insight into the man who raised them. For them the trip is hopeful: in the middle of the film David edits in home video footage of Josef as an old man, sitting patiently at a birthday party, clearly preoccupied but at pains not to seem so. Watching him we get a clear sense of the deeply afflicted father with whom these people never connected.
David goes to great lengths to flesh out his father’s story, finding, for instance, three of the American GIs, now in their eighties, who liberated the Gusen camp and whose memories paid a haunting price for what they witnessed. But whenever he lets his film stray from his siblings into back-story and archival photos, his sequences start to feel like filler. David may take pains to illuminate the Austrian camps and the climate of war that surrounded them, but the strength of Six Million and One is as a filmed family-therapy session.
Much is hashed out between Esti, David, Gideon and Ronel — especially during one marathon argument in an underground factory whose tunnels their father was forced to dig out — but nothing is tied together. For a film about one of the most perennially compelling subjects of the 20th century, Six Million and One is curiously plodding and slack. Fisher has won awards and much acclaim in Israel for his past work, but he isn’t the tightest or most convincing filmmaker, — at least not here. He has the Holocaust for a subject and four highly intelligent characters, yet he can’t avoid having much of it feel like a second take.
To its credit, Six Million and One feels remarkably necessary for a movie as rambling and loosely constructed as it is. The reason is greater than just the subject matter. The Holocaust is an inexhaustible event — there will probably never be an end to the stories of the lives affected by it. This movie is an actual account of people linked by family to its present-day effects. You may see a History Channel documentary here, or attend a lecture there, but to watch four Jews who can’t avoid the repercussions of the Holocaust — yet who refuse to be its victims — debate what it means to live in its shadow makes for fascinating footage, any way you cut it.