Published Feb 22, 2013Even though the subject of WWII atrocities is no stranger to the documentary medium, director Janet Tobias defies the notion that the Holocaust era has been drained of its stories with her documentary, No Place On Earth, which uncovers the incredible tale of Ukrainian Jews that spent 511 days underground during World War II to avoid Nazi capture. No minor feat, this is the longest recorded underground survival in human history.
New Yorker Christopher Nicola, an avid spelunker, travels to western Ukraine in 1993 to explore its vast network of gypsum caves. While navigating a remote portion, he discovers some unusual articles that indicate humans had once resided there. It becomes his mission to uncover who they were and why they had chosen to live in such an inhospitable place.
Over the next nine years, Nicola manages to piece together a remarkable story that is near-impossible to believe: a group of Ukrainian Jews had lived in those caves for 18 months, and even more remarkable, they had survived with no gear or training.
In 1942, 38 people escaped the Nazis by descending into a nearby muddy hole, creating a refuge for themselves in an otherwise hostile environment. The males of the five families would sneak back up to the surface to collect wood, food and supplies, placing themselves in grave danger each time, yet doing so to keep their families alive. In a region of Ukraine where less than five-percent of Jews survived, these brave souls beat the odds and walked back out into the sunlight unharmed to the newly liberated Russian territory.
Actors re-enact the tales of the past and the original survivors, now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, appear in talking head fashion to provide narrative, insight and emotion to what they experienced all those years ago. Much of the re-enactments occur in dark caves, while the interviews are conducted with black backdrops and dim lighting to further the perception of the darkness they experienced.
The film reaches its pinnacle as the survivors travel back to the caves, accompanied by their spelunker friend, and we witness as these former cave dwellers see their previous abode for the first time since 1944.
No Place On Earth is an adventure story that emphasizes the strength of human will in the face of true adversity and is quite possibly one of the most incredible stories of Holocaust survival to make it to the big screen. (A List)