It’s incredible, that nearly seven decades after World War II, heroic tales of against-all-odds survival still emerge from the darkness. No Place on Earth, a documentary from director Janet Tobias, recounts the story of an explorer from New York City, who discovers a beautiful story of hope and perseverance in the midst of absolute darkness.
The setting is Ukraine at the outbreak of WWII. Jews are being rounded up in numbers we can scarcely imagine. Some are sent to the ghettos. Some are sent to concentration camps. And some are killed on the spot. But there are a few who refuse to believe the Nazi’s promises (lies) that no harm will come their way if they cooperate. So they take advantage of what the earth gives them and go underground with their families into one of the largest cave systems known to man. For over 500 days they are to call these caves their home.
Flash forward to 1993. Explorer Chris Nicola is on holiday in Ukraine to dig up what he can of his family history. Longing to explore the world-class caves for which Ukraine is famous, he goes underground and unearths artifacts that are clearly not from prehistoric man. After some research, he learns that some Jews had survived in those caves during the war, but nobody could tell him more. For years he assumed whoever lived there likely did not survive the war.
But as Nicola finds… a surprising number of them did survive. No Place on Earth mixes dramatic reenactments with interviews from both Nicola and the very people who lived this incredible story. Their lives are testament to the power of the human spirit. And they show us that even in the darkest of days the light of hope shines bright.
I found the story fascinating. So fascinating in fact that I wanted more. And herein lies my biggest complaint of this film–tell me more! Though beautifully filmed and overall, very well made, I found it a little hard to follow. In the span of only 83 minutes, I’m hit with dozens of names of people for whom I have little context. Some of the actors in the dramatization looked similar to one another, and when covered in mud, were virtually indistinguishable. More important, at the end I was left with so many questions that I wanted answered. Generally, I feel a good movie, whether documentary or fiction, should raise questions within us. But those should be questions we ask within ourselves, not questions we need answered by someone else.
As a twenty-something American raised in the suburbs of Washington D.C., and also a non-Jew, I had no personal ties to what happened during the Holocaust. None of my ancestors were killed, or even involved. From an early age, we were taught in school of the atrocities of that era. But what did I actually get out of these stories? Yes I heard all about Hitler, and I read The Diary of Anne Frank, but in the end they were all just stories: horrible stories, but stories nonetheless. Frankly, these events were distant and for me, un-relatable.
I’ve been to the Holocaust museum in D.C. and I’ve walked through the gas chambers of Birkenau. I can tell you none of those stories I heard in school come close to actually touching the bunks where millions slept… and died: or standing on the train tracks that delivered those same innocent people to their doom. Short of taking a trip to Auschwitz, there is little in this world that can possibly help an outsider to understand the horror of what happened. But, in my opinion, the movies are a good start.
Films like Schindler’s List, In Darkness and Sophie’s Choice helped bring these stories to life. They gave us faces we could identify with and made us feel empathy for those telling the story. They brought the average person to an emotional level no textbook could hope to obtain. And although movies will never be able to fully convey the absolute evil these people were subject to, they make us pay attention.
With that being said, I had hoped to feel more from No Place On Earth. It was incredibly interesting but left me somehow wanting more. I would have gladly sat there for another hour and listened to every facet of their tale if the filmmakers had let me. This film, and those involved in making it, could have taken me to a cinematic place that I’ve never been before. In using the very location where the events actually unfolded, it could have blurred the lines between documentary and narrative in a way I’ve never seen.
With the right combination of story telling and fact, No Place on Earth could have taken me on an emotional roller coaster the refugees of the cave no doubt experienced. Even still, the knowledge you will gain from watching is worth the price of a ticket. Absolutely go watch it in theaters if you have the chance. It’s a story everyone should know.