The year is nearly half-over already, and this movie reviewer was getting nervous, thinking ahead to the time when I’ll have to compile my Ten Best list for 2013. Then I went to see a quirky little low-budget docudrama at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck that’s getting no hype at all, and walked out of the theatre feeling much more hopeful. In fact, it was the first time this year that I’ve walked out just saying, “Wow. What a great flick. One for the list!”
The movie that I urge everybody to see, anyplace that you can find it, is called No Place on Earth. In it we meet a cop from Queens named Chris Nicola, an amateur spelunker who spends his vacations exploring the world’s great caving destinations. In 1993 he decided to visit the Ukraine to do some research about his Eastern Orthodox ancestors, and while he was there, check out an extensive cave system that is unusual for being hollowed out of gypsum deposits rather than the more typical limestone.
He found the locals less than forthcoming about their less-than-heroic history, but was intrigued to find evidence of protracted human habitation in one of the caves. We’re not talking about Neanderthals here: The artifacts were from relatively recent times, and included a 1940s-style woman’s dress shoe. So the cave wasn’t just a teenage gang hangout, either, or a spelunking expedition’s base camp. There were obvious remains of several hearths; a sizable group of people had clearly resided there for an extended period of time. It took an awful lot of asking around before Nicola got a Ukrainian neighbor to admit, with great reluctance, that “maybe some Jews” had spent time in the cave.
Switching from Nicola’s point of view, director Janet Tobias begins to interweave a reenactment of what life must have been like for that group of Jews who found refuge from the Nazi occupation, first in the Verteba Caves and then the Priest’s Grotto. No Place on Earth tells the story of the 38 members of the Stermer and Wexler families who spent 511 days in 1943 and 1944 living literally underground, until the advance of Russian troops made it safe for them to emerge again into the blinding daylight.
The caves in question are not the sort of openings in a cliff face that you can just stroll into: The entrances are holes in the ground, narrow, nearly vertical chutes that require considerable squirming. The experienced spelunker Nicola was dumfounded that anyone would try to enter without top-ropes and other professional caving gear; but the desperate people who fled here to hide during World War II ranged in age from a toddler to a woman in her 70s.
Much of the film is devoted to dramatic reenactment of the two families’ plight, using mostly non-professional Eastern European actors and shot in two similarly-laid-out but more accessible caves in Hungary. The action shifts frequently from underground to topside, where three of the older male family members are “trusties” who have been granted badges by the local government that enable them, at first, to come and go unharmed by the Nazis and transact business with non-Jews. Even knowing the eventual happy outcome, it’s a nail-biting experience to watch them constantly risking their lives to buy, forage or steal food and fuel and smuggle it into the caves.
Dramatic tension is heightened when the group’s first hideout is discovered and raided by Nazis, who take some of the residents into custody while others escape through a secret exit and have to find another hiding place. The survivors spend a much longer time in the second, deeper and more isolated cave, coping with constant fear and near-starvation.
Skillfully interwoven with this harrowing tale is yet another narrative thread: The words of four elderly survivors of the Ukraine cave ordeal who now live in the US and Canada. It took Nicola many years to track them down, and the film ends with his organizing an expedition to enable them and a couple of grandchildren to revisit the caves – now part of a public trust in the Ukraine and made somewhat more accessible in recent decades – that enabled them to outlast the war.
The true miracle of No Place on Earth is the upbeat attitude of survivors Saul and Sam Stermer and Sima and Sonia Dodyk. Some filmic accounts of the Holocaust are so unrelentingly grim that most moviegoers outside Judaic Studies programs would look almost anyplace else for entertainment. This isn’t one of those sorts of movies. Nor does it feel emotionally manipulative, grabbing us by the heartstrings and twisting. Even when we hear about how their Christian neighbors failed to offer help, or betrayed them to the Nazis, our contemporary narrators tell the story in a matter-of-fact tone, with a remarkable withholding of judgment. They don’t seem angry or resentful, although they have every right to be; they just seem happy and grateful to be alive.
No Place on Earth is beautifully shot, engrossingly told, genuinely uplifting account of human persistence, ingenuity and day-to-day courage under unspeakably difficult conditions. See this movie. It’s a winner.