NO PLACE ON EARTH
Directed by: Janet Tobias
Starring: Chris Nicola, Saul Stermer, Sam Stermer, Sonia Dodyk, Sima Dodyk
Last year was a phenomenal year for documentary filmmaking, and I had hoped this year would be more of the same. And in a sense, it has. As most of you know, I love a good documentary. I also love riveting drama. However, when you combine the two, it doesn’t always work. Though it falls just short of perfection, Director Janet Tobias’ NO PLACE ON EARTH works effortlessly to combine the two cinematic techniques in the incredible tale of one Ukrainian family’s escape from the Holocaust. It explores the depths to which the human spirit can still exist, and serves as a riveting testament to what these brave souls endured.
In 1993, part-time investigator/ part-time cave enthusiast Chris Nicola traveled to Western Ukraine to explore both his family history and the local caves. Though he discovered nothing about his own family, one spelunking expedition yielded many artifacts from another family – the Stermers, led by resourceful spitfire Esther Stermer. But how did those objects get there? Who lived in the darkness? It wasn’t until many inquiries later when helocated the cave’s inhabitants, Saul and Sam Stermer and Sonia and Sima Dodyk, and learned their astounding family history. On October 28,1942, to escape the Nazi reign of terror, 28 people from the Stermer family entered Verteba cave. However, once word spread of the cave dwellers, the family had to move under the cover of night to another cave, Priest’s Grotto, to wait out the raging war. It wasn’t until 511 days later when they would triumphantly emerge.
What the film lacks in hyper-stylization and slick sheen, it makes up for in spades with heart and story. It’s absolutely mind-boggling that a family was able to survive such a nightmare for so long with little to no infighting or sickness. It must have taken a huge mental and physical toll. Thought it might seem trite, this story is unlike any Holocaust film you’ve seen before – documentary or drama. It’s a haunting, gut-wrenching living history. Sadly, it will probably be one of the last, as that generation is perishing.
I wasn’t terribly keen on the re-enactment segments (which are based on passages from Esther Stermer’s memoir, We Fight To Survive). While it’s far better than the stereotypical stock footage and photographs we’re used to, I was hoping for a little more ingenuity in Tobias’ storytelling technique. Performances from the cast are good, albeit forgettable. Though the actors looked a great deal like their real-life counterparts, it was hard to distinguish who was who in the darkness of the cave. It was slightly disorienting, and not in a good way. Besides, the most engrossing parts of the film are the interviews with the survivors and explorer Nicola.
The Stermer family story feels grander in scope and scale than the delivery method allows it to be. I can’t shake the feeling that this is a film that would be shown in high school History class versus something people would see in theaters. Nevertheless, audiences should make it a point to see this no matter the venue, as this is a story that should be more than legend – it’s a game changer.
4 out of 5
NO PLACE ON EARTH opens in limited release on April 12. For a list of where it’s playing near you, go here.