No Place on Earth is unhappy evidence that, no matter how many Holocaust movies one has seen, the extent of the depravity was such that there are always more untold stories. In Janet Tobias's workmanlike documentary, the setting is rural Ukraine—above and below.
The film begins with an unusual, initially beguiling narrative: An American spelunker named Chris Nicolas becomes interested in the caves of Ukraine, partly for their geological interest and partly because he wants to explore his family's roots in the country. One day, while exploring a cave in western Ukraine, he stumbles on evidence of human habitation. But these humans weren't of the Paleolithic era. Instead, they were from the far more barbaric era of World War II.
It can't be emphasized enough how awful these years were in places such as Ukraine and Hungary. In the former country, close to a million Jews were slaughtered, often en masse. In some communities, the eradication was so exhaustive that practically the only survivors, were people who were able to live underground, like animals. Last year's In Darkness dramatized the true story of Jews in Lvov, on the border of Ukraine and Poland, who survived the Holocaust by living in that city's sewer system. No Place on Earth, a documentary, recounts how an extended clan in Ukraine survived by living in caves.
They were robust people, the Stermers, headed by an indomitable matriarch, Esther. Several dozen people, including one as young as 2, survived for more than 500 days in two different caves. The first cave turned out to be unsafe, as it became a refuge for Gentile peasants who were fleeing Nazi conscription. But they found a second cave and, aided by family members who were able to live above ground thanks to well-placed bribes, this family lived in near-constant darkness, with temperatures in the mid-50s and 90 percent humidity. They didn't all make it, and the film effectively depicts their insecurity, as well as their vulnerability to hunger and thirst, to treacherous neighbors, to boredom.
The story is powerful, but it makes such heavy use of re-enactments that there's something of a fish-nor-fowl problem. On the one hand, the fact that so many survivors are still alive—in their 80s and 90s—and are able to tell their story is a gift for the documentary maker. But at times, the logistical, interpersonal and social details are so complicated that one wishes for the greater dramatic license a fiction film would provide.
A more fundamental problem is that the film, perhaps understandably, focuses on survival and uplift. But some viewers may have trouble comprehending the venality, brutality, cowardice and stupidity that seemed to infect the Gentiles of Ukraine. The filmmakers miss an opportunity in their use of Nicolas, who ceases to have much relevance once we meet the Stermer family. We're told at the film's outset that Nicolas was interested in reconnecting with his Eastern Orthodox Ukrainian heritage. As it's currently constructed, No Place on Earth is a worthwhile film, but a better one might have devoted screen time to Nicolas asking his distant relatives what exactly they were doing during the war, while their neighbors were being hunted to extinction.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Teenager, sailor, survivor, killer."