A chilling re-enactment of a year and a half spent underground in caves by 38 Jews during World War II, "No Place On Earth" is a mind-numbing film by Janet Tobias. Originally uneasy with the idea of another Holocaust movie, once Tobias met caver Chris Nicola and read his unbelievable story about the Stermer family, she knew she had to tell this tale of incredible survival on screen.
This real-life drama, beginning in October 1942, took place in the Ukraine. But for filming purposes, Tobias selected the BaradlaCave in AggtelekNational Park in Hungary. It is Europe's largest stalactite cave, with stairs and walkways for visitors. But even with somewhat modern conveniences, filming was long and difficult, which makes the plight of the real cave survivors even more harrowing.
These strong-willed people had to gather food at great risk of being caught and endure the nasty, cold, damp environment in the caves, much of the time in total darkness. It's an amazing account of these humans' struggle to live.
Not only does Tobias tell that story, but because Nicola was planning a trip to the Ukraine, a group of the remaining survivors, now living in Montreal, insisted upon accompanying Nicola to visit their one-time "home". It was a treacherous journey, with some of the participants being quite elderly. But they were resilient and managed the excursion with panache.
And, yes, Tobias is correct. There have been many films detailing horrific aspects of the Holocaust. "No Place On Earth" has a definite place in the ranks of the best.
Opinion: See It Now!
Most of us wouldn't want to spend an hour in a cold, damp and totally dark environment. How about 12,264 hours? That equates to 511 days, the total time that 38 Ukrainian Jewish refugees hid from the Nazis in two underground caves during World War II.
Their ordeal is told in a compelling docu-drama/documentary directed by Janet Tobias, "No Place On Earth", featuring the four living survivors of this amazing and inspiring true story. The remaining subjects of the film are actors who re-create the dire circumstances based on interviews with brothers Saul and Sam Stermer, and sisters Sonia and Sima Dodyk.
It is reminiscent of the Academy Award nominated 2012 film "In Darkness", in which a smaller group of oppressed people, Polish Jews, are hidden below the streets of a Polish town, and are sustained by a Catholic man who was actually a sewer inspector. The difference in these accounts is that the subjects in "No Place On Earth" had to forage for their own food and water by sending the strongest of their group out of the caves and into the local village. In one sequence, they stole a horse to drag a man-made sled of provisions to the cave's opening. They actually considered killing the horse for its meat, but thought it would be too inhumane.
The opening documentary portion of "No Place On Earth" starts with an interview of a New York City resident, Chris Nicola, who happens to be a "caver", which is just what it sounds like --- he likes to explore caves. On at least one occasion while caving in the Ukraine, he uncovered artifacts --- buttons, an old shoe --- that revealed the existence of people who must have lived there for a period of time. After Tobias read a story in National Geographic authored by Nicola, she set in motion all the aspects for making her film.
It is a splendid melding of archival footage of the Nazi occupation of western Ukraine, and the reconstruction of events as told by the four survivors. Their faces on camera are partially hidden in shadow, which was likely an intentional and clever device to remind us of the grim atmosphere of the caves.
Esther Stermer, the matriarch of the families, is portrayed by Katalin Laban. She says at one point, as if to assuage the fears of the families, especially the children, that there are no monsters here --- the devils and evil are outside.
The final piece of the documentary may be the most startling of all. When Nicola and a crew of cameramen escort the survivors back into the main cave after 60+ years, one of the Stermer brothers requests that the lights of the equipment be turned off momentarily. "Now I feel good", he says.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!