No Place on Earth
Opens Fri., May 3 at Harvard Exit. Rated PG-13. 81 minutes.
Just as the world is sadly running out of Holocaust survivors, the movies are also running out of new documentary topics on that subject. Directed by Janet Tobias, No Place on Earth is surely bound for The History Channel, where its reenactment scenes may cause fewer noses to wrinkle in disapproval. For me, the practice is wrong—it just feels like false dramatic padding for a story that could be told from archives and interviews in less than an hour. (Or in a National Geographic story, as it previously was.)
In brief, an extended family of some 36 Ukrainian Jews spent over 500 days underground, living in two large, uncomfortable caves, while villagers aboveground were being sent to the camps. Their survival tale is both remarkable and familiar, since survival was the exception, not the rule, during the Holocaust. Narrow escapes, Nazi roundups (“Schnell! Schnell!”), bribes and betrayals, foraging and near starvation—these are the staples of the genre, which No Place on Earth typifies. To otherwise advance the story, diaries and letters are read, newsreels excerpted, and survivors interviewed.
The livelier sections involve spelunker Chris Nicola, a garrulous New Yorker and amateur historian who over a decade connected his subterranean finds with the Stermer family descendents, now living in Canada and the U.S. (This became the 2004 National Geographic story.) When he returns to Ukraine with a few of these octogenarians, grandkids in tow, the party revisits the caves. There they find the grindstone the Stermers used to mill flour—not an ancient artifact, but still part of living history, some 70 years later.