In 1942, as the Nazis and their various collaborators were rounding up Europe’s Jews, two families, the Stermers and the Wexlers, decided to journey to the caves—part of then-Poland—to hide. About 30 people descended into the abyss, staying there for 511 days during the war. They survived neighbors trying to kill them, soldiers raiding the caves, and issues with finding food and water. They survived. And practically no one knows about it.
What allows us to hear this story now is the discovery made by spelunker Chris Nicola, who was exploring the caves near his family’s ancestral home in western Ukraine in 1993. While in a 77-mile cave, he discovered a chamber full of various human items and names scribbled on the walls, signs of life in a place where he hadn’t expected any at all. But when he asked around, trying to figure out who could have been living down there, the only answer he received from nearby villagers was “maybe some Jews.” No other information was provided, no other guidance was given. It was as if the whole community wanted to forget what had happened in their area—and, perhaps, what they had or had not done.
And so Nicola spent the next 10 years trying to track down who could have been hiding there, eventually learning that some of the remaining survivors and their relatives were living in the Bronx and Montreal. Nicola eventually meets up with four survivors, Saul and Sam Stermer and Sonia and Sima Dodyk, and joins them on a trip back to the site in 2010. Memories are exchanged. Tearful exchanges are had. It’s all very heart-warming and inspirational.
Well … if only “No Place on Earth” was just that narrative: Nicola finds evidence of survivors, tracks down survivors, survivors share their story, closure is had by all. Instead, Tobias cripples her own film by mushing too many concrete elements—interviews with Nicola, interviews with the survivors, narration from everybody—together with fictionalized ones, like dramatic reenactments of the Jews living in the caves and interacting with other villagers and Nazis. Shadowy, backlit, and distractingly sepia-toned, these reenactments look very much like the kind you would find on “America’s Most Wanted” or “Deadline” or some other kind of television program meant to provide you with sensationalistic journalism. The visual tone needed for this kind of story is simply not there in the recreations, and they become distracting and frustrating.
Also complicating matters is how Tobias jumps from element to element, from the mystery Nicola was trying to solve to the actors playing people living in the caves to the survivors talking about their experiences—and back again. There’s no clear structure that smoothly links everything together. The transitions between times and places and people are too jarring and swift; there’s little time to linger over the Stermer matriarch, Esther, who hid children into corners of the caves when the Nazis arrived for a raid, or the cruel villagers who tried to bury the Jews alive in the caves. Tobias’s choice to layer the narration and the reenactments and the interviews, all on top of each other, fails to build the documentary in an effective way. You’ll sympathy, empathy, anger, and awe, but those emotions will be buried under an onslaught of mediocre filmmaking.
Everything about the story of “No Place on Earth” is affecting enough on its own—how the Jews survived, how Nicola found them, how Esther Stermer published a memoir of her experiences in 1975 that went basically unnoticed. This kind of mystery, the kind of story that teaches us about history and ourselves, doesn’t need embellishment. “No Place on Earth” would have been a far more effective documentary with less, not more.
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