Documentary Review: No Place on Earth
The film opens with Chris Nicola, a government employee with a passion for cave-diving. During one of his trips exploring the “gypsum giants” of the Ukraine, he discovers a handful of artifacts — a boot, a lantern — that have no business being there. Back in town, he asks the locals if they know anything about the strange remnants. He’s told they’re probably from some of the Jewish families that hid there during the War.
Back in New York, Chris continues his investigation, gathering little until, nine years later, he receives an e-mail from one of the survivors, Sol Wexler, who, coincidentally, leaves merely seven miles away. Through Sol, Chris meets the Stermers, who narrate the story of their families’ time in the cave, described in their mother Esther’s memoir We Fight to Live.
In 1942, German troops invaded their town, rounding up the Jewish families and forcing several families underground. There they pass the time exploring the caves, searching for an alternate exit in case they’re discovered; collecting cave drippings for water and foraging for food; and sleeping to pass the time. Some of villagers maintain their secret, bringing them news from the town, while others don’t, and eventually the families are discovered. Some are brought back to town, others remain hidden. The prisoners escape from the town and regroup with the rest, retreating to yet another cave.
As compelling as it sounds, I still wonder Did this need to be a movie?
I don’t doubt the hardships of the 38 Jews who hid for nearly two years underground. I don’t doubt the strength of Saul and Sam and Esther and Yetta Sterner and the rest (the biggest gasp comes when the energetic Saul is revealed to be 91!), worried that every time they came up for food, they could be shot. I don’t even doubt that, “their story is remarkable in any era.”
I just don’t think this documentary captures that. The problem stems from the re-enactments, which will always minimize the drama when compared to hearing it from the mouths of the actual people. The interviewees will lay out the story before, during, and after we see it play out on screen. Not only is it repetitive, but it diminishes the impact of the words.
The tears streaming from Saul when he talks about his mother or Sam when he talks about his brother’s strength make it easy top empathize with them; not so much when you see a handful of actors reiterate a particularly brave act. We understand it the first time, and all it does is remind you that you’re watching actors. Worse, the re-enactments never give the impression of how large the caves really are, and when you’re told there were 38 people living within them, it’s a surprise; the focus is on about 15 at most. Worst, though, the voiceovers feel in service of the re-enactments, when it should be the opposite.
However good it looks, the idea to re-enact just feels lazy, like something you’d catch on the History Channel between Pawn Stars and How the Pawn Stars Got Their Names. It’s not a good sign that the most interesting parts are whenever the film switches back to the present day.
No Place on Earth is rated PG-13. Directed by Janet Tobias. Starring Chris Nicola, Saul Stermer, Sam Stermer, Sonia Dodyk, Sima Dodyk, Katalin Laban, Peter Balazs Kiss, Daniel Hegedus, Balazs Barna Hidvegi, Fruzsina Pelikan, Andras Orosz, Mira Bonelli, Norbert Gogan, Reka Gavaldi, and Zucker Emanuell.