“Six Million and One” is a Holocaust film for those who are tired of Holocaust films. Angry and confrontational, David Fisher’s personal documentary wrestles with the real legacy of World War II: second generation children trying to reconcile the distant and scarred parents they knew with the horrors of the history books.
Joseph Fisher’s memoir, written in the few years before his death, was discovered by his adult children after his funeral. Only David could stand to read the candid account—from number of lashes as punishment to number of bodies piled in a grave—and it becomes his compass. David travels to Austria and America, speaking with war vets and historical experts, in an effort to understand how his father managed to avoid becoming victim number six million and one.
Finally, he drags his reluctant siblings into the tunnels his father dug with his bare hands, hauling rock on his back to survive the labor camps. Illuminated only by flashlights and a single yahrzeit candle, the family finally confronts their own feelings about the man their father was and the childhood they lost.
The episodic film jumps between the various trips across the world, excerpts from Joseph’s gripping memoir, and an unnamed girl listing the meticulously categorized causes of death of labor camp inmates.
“This is the filmmaker's research of the Holocaust through numbers and especially the number of times his father managed to escape death,” a note on the film’s Facebook page promises. “The film will build up towards its inevitable ending scene, during which Joseph is the last one to leave the concentration camp. David recreates this moment and counts the steps he has to make from the gate.”
“Six Million and One” falls short of this lofty goal. The past mathematical theme fails to take precedence over the family drama of the siblings fighting and loving one another. The documentary is less a recreation of the past and more an examination of the present—the PTSD suffered by soldiers and descendants alike.
Everyone in the film suffers from survivor’s guilt. Some townspeople, living the suburban life on top of what used to be a concentration camp, avoid the culpability of their actions by lashing out at visitors on an audio tour. Others attempt to honor the past with community action to preserve the remaining historical sites.
One aged American veteran breaks down in shaking tears when recalling the “human living skeletons” he tried so hard to feed after liberation, who died only a few hours later. "It's impossible to explain to people how inhuman humans can be to other humans," he explains, urging David to “be happy” with the story of his father’s survival and not investigate the gruesome details.
"I'm one big wound," sister Esti cries in the tunnels. She screams that she cannot connect with the history any more than she already has, and blames the world for hurting her parents so much that they couldn’t love her properly. Her brother cries softly while trying to express his anger at his father for surviving, when he might have been better off among the dead.
But “Six Million and One,” playing at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, is not just angry. Like any Jewish family gathering, it is also ruefully humorous, reflective and full of rivalries. The Fisher siblings tell stories about their childhoods, ruminate about the status of their souls and make jokes about the Freudian mission of the film.
Unable to come to any conclusions, David’s film instead crystalizes the paralyzing frustration of wanting to honor the memory of the Holocaust and yet being unable to properly do so. It is a film about loss and heartbreak and surviving above all else. It may not be the life Joseph dreamed of, but it is still a life nonetheless.