Movie Review: No Place on Earth
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
To re-enact or not? For some documentarians, it is a crucial question. For others, it is a no-brainer: Don’t do it. It looks cheesy and cheap and, frankly, moves a documentary into the realm of docu-drama.
Which is why it is interesting to see re-enactments work, more or less, in “No Place on Earth,” a History Channel production directed by Janet Tobias.
“No Place” is the genuinely extraordinary story of nearly 40 Ukrainian Jews, members of the extended Stermer family, who spent more than 500 days living in two large caves, deep underground, during World War II, and outlived the Holocaust, eventually emigrating to the United States and Canada.
The harrowing tale was not generally known until 1993, when an amateur caver from New York named Chris Nicola explored Ukraine’s legendary gypsum caverns and investigated his own Eastern Orthodox roots.
In one cave, he found evidence of humanity — a woman’s shoe, a comb, bottles — but neither ancient nor recent. The objects seemed decades old. He started asking locals some questions. They pointed him to the town’s Jewish population for answers.
It was, quite literally, a dark existence. Water dripped through the cave: “A glass of water is for a family for a day,” one man recalls. Two men bribed police for identification in order to secure food.
But the true danger was outside. Light, space, the open air, these things were the enemy. As one woman recalled a child’s joy after being in hiding in small spaces above ground: “I’ve got a playground here.”
Now and then, “No Place on Earth” cuts back to Nicola, who returned to Ukraine a few times to try to sort out the tale; he is not Jewish but has become hypnotized by this story. He eventually discovers that a relative of a survivor lives near him in New York. (The story was eventually published in National Geographic in 2004.)
Not all of the Stermer family survived. At one point, they were discovered by the Gestapo, which should have been a death sentence (More than 90 percent of Ukraine’s Jews were killed during the Holocaust). A few were killed, others escaped, and a second cave was found, a place no humans had ever been. Five families totaling 38 people, ranging in age from two to 76, entered this second cave.
What resonates is the extraordinary adaptability of humanity. They were smart, disciplined and resourceful. A stone was found to grind flour and potatoes; cooking was done when possible. One woman’s grandmother kept a calendar in her head; high holidays such as Yom Kippur were observed. With no natural light, they did a lot of sleeping, 18 or 20 hours a day sometimes.
Men went out to find (and sometimes buy) food and fuel, a terrifying ritual for those left behind. “To cut wood was the most dangerous thing,” one man said. “You couldn’t hear if someone was coming.”
Again and again, there are close calls, debates about whom to trust in the outside world, massive snows that made everything more dangerous (tracks were easy to spot). The possibility of starvation was ever-present; everyone ate only enough to survive.
Eventually, April 12, 1944, after 511 days underground, the area was liberated, and the family emerged and left for North America.
At the film’s climax, Nicola accompanies some of the survivors, who are in their 80s and 90s, and their children and grandchildren on a return trip to the caves, to “say thank you,” as one woman says. It is joyous to see these people, then children, now old, in natural light, and it is extraordinary to see them return to the cave that sheltered them.