Experienced spelunker Chris Nicola discovers remains in a Ukrainian cave that start him searching for Holocaust survivors. Amazing story told thru a combination of contemporary interviews and staged reenactments. Altho scheduled for theatrical release, it has a TV feel, but go in expecting something made for the History Channel, and you’ll come out sated. Click HERE for our FF2 haiku.
Chris Nicola is an amazing guy! Craving both classroom learning and real world experience, Chris has acquired numerous degrees in Criminal Justice and Forensic Psychology with related work in Anthropology and Physics, all the while traveling around the world to lead caving expeditions on several continents.
So when he found unexpected signs of human habitation deep underneath the peaceful villages and farms of southwest Ukraine, Chris started seeking more information. But responses from the local residents were vague. “Maybe there were some Jews there?” No one seemed energized by his curiosity, and of course there were no longer any Jews around to provide Chris with explanations.
A full decade later, filmmaker Janet Tobias tells the whole story, with astonishing details that Chris could barely have imagined at the start. Yes, the artifacts had been left in the cave by Jews who had hidden there between 1942 and 1944 (when the Soviet Army finally succeeded in driving the Nazis out of Eastern Europe and back into Germany). Yes, some of the survivors were still alive to provide personal accounts of their ordeal. And yes, there were even primary source materials: soon after his liberation, Sol Wexler had documented his wartime experiences while awaiting emigration in a DP camp, and in 1960, matriarch Esther Stermer had written a memoir which was widely distributed to her family members.
I had the great good fortune to hear Tobias discuss No Place on Earth after a New York screening on Sunday, April 7 (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and one thing she said during the Q&A really resonated. Asked why this was just surfacing now–so many years later–Tobias said that although the story was well-known within the family, the survivors had never made a point of telling outsiders. I didn’t tape this Q&A so I don’t have her exact words, but here’s the gist of what Tobias said: The Stermers, Wexlers, and Dodyks knew many survivors, so they knew that almost every survivor had a harrowing and almost unbelievable story. So why make a point of their own unique story when so few had lived and so many had died? But once Chris Nicola found actually evidence of their life in the caves, it was time to come forward and tell him what they knew.
Tobias has spent most of her career in television. She began as an Associate Producer for 60 Minutes (CBS), and her long list of credits also includes Nightline (ABC), Dateline (NBC), and Frontline (PBS). So it is no exaggeration to say that Tobias is one of the people who has created the template for the television documentary, which now typically includes “talking head interviews” (by principals) and historical reenactments (by actors) in almost equal measure.
In No Place on Earth, Tobias has merged forms to take advantage of the best of both modes. On the one hand, No Place on Earth definitely holds its own on the big screen. One of her cinematographers, César Charlone, worked with director Fernando Meirelles on his Oscar-nominated films City of God and The Constant Gardener. Another cinematographer, Eduard Grau, worked with director Tom Ford on his Oscar-nominated film A Single Man. All the members of her editing team (Alexander Berner, Deirdre Slevin, and Claus Wehlisch) also have strong feature film credits. These technical quals are definitely best appreciated in a well-equipped theatre.
On the other hand, No Place on Earth, which has a clear narrative line that avoids difficult questions, feels more like a television special than a theatrical feature. Stressing the story’s most dramatic and uplifting elements, No Place on Earth, like the men in the story, spends as much time as possible outside the cave, depicting dangerous male activities like stealing food and hauling firewood.
But we actually learn relatively little about life inside the cave, where the women and children lived in almost total darkness for over 500 days. Here again, I have the advantage of having heard the post-screening Q&A, where women in the audience quizzed Tobias about sanitation. It turns out Tobias had many interesting things to say about these “female concerns,” so why did she decide against including more of these details in No Place on Earth? Would a discussion of sanitation be construed as disgusting? More likely, she knew it would seem boring compared to the narrow escapes experienced by the men above ground. And yet, if no one had paid attention to nutrition and hygiene, then those who had successfully eluded the Nazis might well have succumbed to disease. And then who would have been left to tell this remarkable story?
Bottom line: I recommend that you see No Place on Earth in a theatre, but if you miss it, then make sure to watch it at home. And then, once you’re hooked, you will find a treasure trove of collateral materials on the website!
Click HERE for Magnolia Pictures website which includes additional information including schedule of USA theatrical releases thru 5/24/13. Additional screenings are also planned in Britain, Canada, Germany and Israel.
Photo Credits: Christopher Beauchamp/Magnolia Pictures.