Too good not to be told

  • Review by Caroline Enge

No Place on Earth – Documentary film

(Director: Janet Tobias)

The incredible story of three Jewish families surviving Second World War deep down in Ukrainian caves is far from another sentimental Holocaust documentary.

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A New York police investigator with a passion for cave exploring goes to Ukraine to search for his ancestors. Instead, he finds another family’s story. Deep down in the caves, he discovers remnants of people living there. His investigation remains futile, but after ten years, he finally receives an email that explains everything.

The story of how the Jewish families in their desperate search for a safe hiding stumbled upon the largest caves in Europe, and how they built a life inside and managed to survive for 500 days, is extraordinary in itself. That four of the children are still alive and fully capable of telling the tale with humor, warmth and meticulous detail is no less impressing. And to top it all off, there is the caving enthusiast who never gave up, and is finally able to take the survivors back to the place where they spent such a crucial part of their lives.

But the fact that the film tries to embrace all these sides of the story in different ways is also its biggest weakness. As we first meet the New Yorker Chris Nicola spelunking in Eastern Europe, he raises a lot of intriguing questions. Watching a documentary, we are naturally waiting for the explanation. But the police investigator is soon forgotten, as actors start exploring the caves, and we’re all of a sudden back in the 1940s. The four survivors are interviewed, and together with re-enactments, some archive images, some quotes from their mothers memoirs, and even some of the actors narrating (are they quoting their characters, or is it just artistic freedom?), the story is told scene-by-scene from when the Jewish families were first forced to move, until the end of the war.

Despite this messy mix of story-telling techniques, the story is engaging and easy to follow. But as a documentary, one may start to wonder – where is the documentation? High pace and a burning desire to show the drama, leaves little room for sentimentality. Maybe sometimes too little; As all the narrators emphasize their own impression of the conditions in the cave, the audience doesn’t get much opportunity to reflect on it themselves.

‘No Place on Earth’ shows how the dark, scary caves turned out to be the most welcoming place for the Ukrainian Jews, hiding them from the “real monsters” of the outside world. It is no doubt an incredible story that deserves to be told, also on screen. But the question remains, if it benefits from the somewhat confusing mix of re-enactment and documentary, or if it would be even more compelling as plain faction.

’No Place On Earth’ (2012)
• 83 min. documentary film
• Directed by Janet Tobias (USA)
• Based on Esther Stermers memoirs ’We Fight to Survive’ (1960)
• Only 5% of the Jews in Western Ukraine survived the Holocaust.
• For 511 days, 38 members of the Stermer and Wexler families lived underground. First in ’The Verteba Cave’, then ‘The Priest’s Grotto’ until the liberation by the Red Army in April 1944.
• Some of them never left the cave for 344 days, which is the longest uninterrupted underground survival recorded in human history.
• The gypsum cave system in Ukraine is one of the largest in the world.
• The surviving family members and their descendants emigrated to Canada/ the U.S. after the war.
• The story was featured in National Geographic Adventure Magazine in June/July 2004, and appeared in several other publications, including book form.

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This entry was published on November 24, 2012 at 7:17 pm. It’s filed under English for journalists and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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