NO PLACE ON EARTH might be my favorite film of TIFF 2012. I’m certain it will be nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. In fact, I’m sure it will one day be a Criterion release. This is one of those stories that speaks to something deep inside us and will be watched over and over for generations.
In the early 90s, a caver, Chris Nicola was exploring the vast and extensive gypsum caves in Ukraine. Deep into one of the caves he found things like a ladies shoe, buttons, and a key. These aren’t the kinds of things you normally find in a cave, so he set about trying to determine how they could have ended up there. He made little headway, until someone mentioned a rumor that Jews hid in the caves during World War II. Despite this lead, it would take him many more years to piece together the full story. Thirty-eight Jews did hide out in the caves for 511 days when western Ukraine was occupied by Germany. And some of them are still alive. NO PLACE ON EARTH tells their remarkable story through interviews with them and reenactments of their more than a year and a half struggle for survival.
That sounds remarkable enough, but until you hear the full story, you just can’t imagine what these people went through. If this story was a Hollywood movie, I wouldn’t believe it. I don’t think it is possible to see this film without it moving you to tears.
Imagine this: one day the Nazis come and start hauling people off to camps. You run, you try to find a hiding place. You can’t trust your former neighbors, because they might turn you in. Do you hide in the woods, exposed to the elements and easy detection? Maybe a cave is a better option. But once you get to the cave, what do you do? You need water, you need food, and you need light. You might survive for a few days like this, but how could you survive for more than a year?
For the Stermer family and their fellow cave-dwellers, the answer was that you try every trick you can imagine to survive. They found a trusted emissary who could trade gold for flour, they milled grain themselves, they collected water dripping through the rocks, and sometimes survived on a few sips of water a day. They had a few lamps, and collected wood to make fires.
The women stayed in the caves, while the men ventured out to round up supplies. But this carried its own risk. Eventually, the men were seen by a villager. Do you kill the innocent villager or trust him and let him go, putting the lives of several families at risk? The Nazis also found the cave. In some cases mothers and fathers were taken while some of their children managed to hide. Those that survived had to find a new cave to hide in. And when it snowed, footprints could lead people right to your hiding place. At one point, the families had to survive in a cave for two months without exiting, just to convince villagers that they were dead.
Many of the survivors, now elderly, were children when this happened. They rarely talked about the ordeal to people who didn’t go through it, because as one put it, “It seemed too incredible.” But at least two survivors wrote down their stories. Those texts, plus interviews with survivors, lay out the series of events. This is intercut with voiced-over reenactments of life in the war and in the caves, and the occasional still photograph. In the end, Chris Nicola, the man who rediscovered and pieced together the story takes some of the survivors back to the cave that once saved their lives.
From a documentary perspective, NO PLACE ON EARTH is top-notch. It is director Janet Tobias’ first film, but she brought considerable experience as a producer on 60 Minutes, Dateline NBC, and Nightline. The score is outstanding, the period recreations look amazing, and the people interviewed are charismatic and compelling. But more than that, the narrative constructed, the true story of survival against all odds, is just one of the best human stories I’ve ever heard. Survival in a cave against predators and the elements takes us to our deepest roots as human beings. Who could have imagined it would happen in modern times?
After its debut to a standing ovation Monday night at the Toronto Film Festival, NO PLACE ON EARTH was acquired by Magnolia Pictures. They plan to release it theatrically in 2013.