No Place on Earth

Despite the occasional cross-genre collision, the story is gripping and moving; its History Channel connection will provide apt exposure.

With: Saul Stermer, Sam Stermer, Sonia Dodyk, Sima Dodyk, Yetta Stermer, Sol Wexler, Christopher Nicola. (English dialogue)

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.

No Place on Earth

U.S.- U.K.-Germany

Production: A History Films presentation of a Sierra/Tango Films production in cooperation with Bayerischer Rundfunk, Miteldeutscher Rundfunk and Telepool, in association with A List Films, Unanico Group, Delirio Films, Peter Lane Taylor, Deron Triff. (International sales: Submarine, New York.) Produced by Janet Tobias, Rafael Marmor, Paul Laikin, Nadav Schirman, Susan Barnett, Zita Kisgergely. Executive producers, Susan Werbe, Molly Thompson, David McKillop, Timm Oberwelland, Katja Zink, Andrew O'Connell, J. Flint Davis, Jeffrey H. Field, Steven Ruchefsky. Co-producers, Thomas Weymar, Hubert von Spreti, Katja Wildermuth. Directed by Janet Tobias. Written by Tobias, Paul Laikin.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W), Cesar Charlone, Eduard Grau, Sean Kirby, Peter Simonite; editors, Deirdre Slevin, Claus Wehlisch; music, John Piscitello, sound, Anton Gold, Elijah Lawson, Giles Khan, Gabor Vadnay, Michael Silvestri; supervising sound editor, Lewis Goldstein; re-recording mixers, Goldstein, Tom Ryan. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 8, 2012. Running time: 84 MIN.

Cast: With: Saul Stermer, Sam Stermer, Sonia Dodyk, Sima Dodyk, Yetta Stermer, Sol Wexler, Christopher Nicola. (English dialogue)

More Scene

  • Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce

    Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce GLAAD Media Award Nominations

    Mj Rodriguez and Nico Santos are set to announce the nominees for the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards. The “Pose” star and “Crazy Rich Asians” funny man will make the announcement during a live-stream from the AT&T Hello Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 25. More Reviews Palm Springs Reviews: 'Fig Tree' [...]

  • Emile Hirsch, Matt SmileyEmile Hirsch hosts

    Emile Hirsch Hosts Smiley Face Art Opening at Mondrian Hotel

    Despite the rain on Wednesday night in West Hollywood, there were plenty of smiles inside the Mondrian hotel thanks to artist Matt Smiley‘s Refresh exhibition. Not only is Smiley his real last name, but several of his paintings and other pieces in the exhibit feature smiley faces. More Reviews Palm Springs Reviews: 'Fig Tree' Film [...]

  • Randall Park, left, and Constance Wu

    Constance Wu Wants Her 'Fresh Off the Boat' Co-Star Randall Park to Host the Oscars

    While the Academy may have decided to go hostless for this year’s Oscars, that doesn’t mean the rest of Hollywood has stopped thinking about who would be a good choice for the emceeing gig. Former host Whoopi Goldberg recently suggested Ken Jeong. More Reviews Palm Springs Reviews: 'Fig Tree' Film Review: 'Pledge' Jeong said, when [...]

  • 'Schitt's Creek' Stars Reveal Dream Guest

    'Schitt's Creek' Cast Reveals Dream Guest Stars: Oprah, Beyonce and ...

    “Schitt’s Creek” has big dreams. Dan Levy, who stars as David on the series, says his wish list of guest stars includes Oprah, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Gwyneth Paltrow. “All for different reasons, none of whom we’ll get,” he cracked at the Critics’ Choice Awards. More Reviews Palm Springs Reviews: 'Fig Tree' Film Review: 'Pledge' [...]

  • Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bundchen

    Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen to Be Honored at UCLA Science Gala

    Science can be very glamorous. It certainly will be during Oscar week on Feb. 21 when the UCLA Institute of the Environment & Sustainability (IoES) honors Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen for environmental activism at its annual Hollywood for Science Gala. More Reviews Palm Springs Reviews: 'Fig Tree' Film Review: 'Pledge' “When I moved to [...]

  • Don Cheadle and Andrew Rannells Black

    Don Cheadle, Andrew Rannells Talk Snorting 'Coke' on 'Black Monday'

    “Black Monday” show creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahen divulged an intriguing detail to come later in the first season of the new Showtime comedy at its world premiere, held at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Monday night in Los Angeles. “The fourth or fifth episode opens with a sexual harassment seminar, which very well [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content