April 18, 2013
The story told by Janet Tobias' documentary "No Place on Earth" is enough to transcend the film's limitations. With human drama like this, it sounds almost absurd to get hung up on artistic choices and filmmaking technique. Almost.
In 1993, a New Yorker named Chris Nicola was caving in the gypsum caverns of western Ukraine when he "turned a corner and stumbled over some objects," as he says on camera. There, at his feet: buttons. Remains of stoves. A child's shoes. These artifacts provoked further digging, and nine years later Nicola had learned their secrets.
In October 1942, the year after Germany's invasion of the eastern Poland/Ukraine region, 38 Ukrainian Jews took refuge in what's known as the Verteba Cave in the Bilche Zlota Valley. The ages of the members of the extended Stermer and Wexler families ranged from 2 to 76. First in Verteba, then in the nearby Priest's Grotto, these people fought starvation while adjusting to near-total darkness. They established escape routes and observed Yom Kippur. And then, in 1944, those who remained were liberated by the Soviets.
Like all Holocaust accounts of raw survival, "No Place on Earth" has a thematic connection to many other stories, among them Agnieszka Holland's "In Darkness," a fictionalized narrative feature set in the sewers of Lvov. Tobias has some wonderful on-camera subjects, chiefly Saul and Sam Stermer and Sonia and Sima Dodyk, whose memories of their 500-plus days spent in the caves remain clear-eyed and extremely moving. Tobias' film culminates in a 2010 trip taken back to the caves by these four, accompanied by their children and grandchildren, a long way from their adopted hometowns of Montreal and New York City.
Produced by an arm of the History channel, where it will air soon, "No Place on Earth" favors a routine docudramatic melange of approaches. There's extensive use of historical re-creations using actors, spiced with bits of newsreel and found footage from the era depicted. But the first-person remembrances hit you where you live, while everything else (including a bland musical score by John Piscitello) often creates the opposite of the intended effect: It keeps you at arm's length from an extraordinary story.
'No Place on Earth' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including brief violent images)
Running time: 1:24
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