Film Review: No Place on Earth

Just when you thought you’d seen the horror of the Holocaust from every perspective, this somber but ultimately uplifting true story of survival takes you to a whole new place—literally underground.

After Nazi Germany overran the western Ukraine in 1939, it was only a matter of time before a familiar fate befell the many Jews of the region. Those who were not sent to concentration camps were zoned off into ghettos—from which many were later relocated to concentration camps. That is, if they weren’t just murdered first. But filmmaker Janet Tobias knows that we already know all this—sadly, all too well. She also knows that in No Place on Earth, she has a story that relatively few have ever heard. It’s a story so astonishing in its details that one wonders how it could have remained a virtual secret for over 70 years.

The film focuses almost exclusively on the members of two extended families—the Stermers and the Wexlers—a total of 38 people who escaped the horror by opting for the most extreme hardship, while hiding deep inside the caves near their homes, for roughly a year and a half. If this were a work of fiction, it would strain one’s credulity. As a documentary, it’s almost beyond our ability to comprehend.

Early on, we’re introduced to seasoned spelunker Chris Nicola, who, in 1993, was exploring a 77-mile-long Ukrainian cave and found evidence of human habitation: a comb, a cup, a key, a lot of buttons, numerous etchings on the walls. Asking around, all he got were vague allusions to the possibility that, during World War II, “some Jews” might have lived there. Pursuing what might only have been an urban legend, Nicola spent years not making much progress, before the breakthrough that eventually led him to 14 of the original 38 cave dwellers. Their combined stories were the basis for his co-written National Geographic article and, later, a book—which, in turn, inspired Tobias’ film.

But translating this compelling story to the screen proved decidedly problematic. The inherent challenge was the dearth of found footage—or even old photographs—that could have been strung together to represent historic events. But since the physical rigors these people endured were so key to the story’s impact, the filmmakers decided on the always tricky re-enactment—or as they call it here, “dramatic reconstruction.” By any name, it still involves the use of actors, who represent the real-life subjects, going through the motions of the daily ordeal that made their story worth telling. Done poorly, this tends to make for a true story that’s hard to take seriously. But even done reasonably well, it still keeps you at a distance, simply because you’re always aware that you’re not watching the real thing. In this case, knowing that the reconstruction took place not in the actual Ukrainian caves, but in reasonable facsimiles in Hungary, makes it a little bit harder to get lost in the illusion.

With all that said, Tobias has pulled off her re-enactment gambit about as well as anyone ever has. Wisely, she has refrained from trying to recreate anything too dramatic, while giving her actors virtually no dialogue. Except for when they scatter during a German raid of one cave, the actors are mostly just there to animate the everyday existence of these two families: tunneling into and through the caves, venturing into the night to gather (or steal) food, preparing that food, collecting water from underground lakes, keeping the kerosene lamps lit, huddling together against the damp, subterranean chill.

That’s what gives the film its semblance of activity. The real drama is in the memories of the surviving Stermers and Wexlers, in their own words and their own voices. Fittingly, they are the narrators of their story. Taking turns, they relate an oral history so vividly recalled that the visual re-enactment all but falls into the background, like illustrations in a book. When one of the survivors talks of crouching in the dark, listening to the explosions, as the Russians and Germans fought it out on the fields above their heads—essentially deciding these families’ fates—you don’t need a visual recreation to understand exactly how that felt. The first-hand recollections of these people are all the drama this film needs.

As for imagery that will stick with you, this film has it, as Tobias’ cameras record the return trip of four of the now-elderly survivors, who, with grandchildren in tow, re-enter the holes in the ground that were their homes for what had to be the longest 17 months in their eventful lives. That’s when the awesome reality of this true story hits you, full on. And it will stick with you.