A substantial contribution to Holocaust cinema, “No Place on Earth” defies the notion that the era has been exhausted of its stories, or the ways they can be told: In uncovering its tale of Ukrainian Jews who spent 511 days underground during World War II, eluding Nazis and their own treacherous countrymen, “No Place on Earth” is a genuine hybrid of historical drama and dramatic reality, with witnesses portrayed by actors, and the real-life survivors providing the movie’s grounding in fact. Despite the occasional cross-genre collision, the story is gripping and moving; its History Channel connection will provide apt exposure.
The framing device is provided by New Yorker Christopher Nicola, a spelunker who, during an excursion in 1993 to the enormous gypsum caves of western Ukraine, discovered articles that indicated people had at some point lived inside, and for a considerable time. Both onscreen and in voiceover, Nicola relates that while the locals, still in transition from the Soviet era, weren’t very talkative, indications were that if anyone had lived in the caves, it would have been Jews. What follows is an account that Nicola pieces together, and writer-director Janet Tobias midwifes to the screen.
Those Jews, originally, were 28 members of the Stermer and Wexler clans, led by matriarch Esther Stermer, whose families had intended to emigrate to Canada, until their plans were derailed by the war reaching the Ukraine in 1939. They managed to hold out until 1942, when the invading Germans stepped up the Final Solution, and Stermer and Co. took refuge in a well-known cave called Verteba, in the Bilche Zlota Valley. Living in a kind of perpetual twilight, collecting water that dripped off rocks and stealing food at night, the families survived until being discovered by the Gestapo in 1943, at which point several of the fugitives were killed, and the survivors took refuge again, in the so-called Priest’s Grotto Cave, a 77-mile-long enclosure where Nicola would find his artifacts 50-odd years later.
Helmer Tobias takes some ambitious chances in relating the story, with actors portraying the various Stermers and Wexlers at the time events happened, and survivors, including Saul Stermer, Sam Stermer, Sonia Dodyk and Sima Dodyk, providing a kind of latter-day color commentary to the action. Inevitably, one story steps on the other, as Tobias occasionally has voiceovers mingling with interview narration. Given that, and the seeming multitude of characters, it’s often extremely difficult to distinguish who’s who.
Moreover, the entire doc takes place in a kind of half-light. The ’40s scenes are largely set at night or in caves; the interviews are conducted against black backdrops. In short, this is one dark movie, which may befit the story, but taxes the retinas.