Medicine bottles. Buttons. A child's shoe. While cave–diving in Ukraine, spelunker Chris Nicola found these signs of life in a place where few humans were thought to have set foot. These mundane items surely told an extraordinary story. Nicola was compelled to find their owners.
The writing was on the wall, literally. Drawn on the rocks were the names of 38 people from two Jewish families who hid in caves for more than 500 days during World War II. Their unbelievable account of survival is told in Janet Tobias' No Place on Earth, a History Channel-produced documentary that coats the facts in a made–for–TV sheen.
The story unfolds in a series of reenactments and firsthand accounts given by survivors who recall the period with heartbreaking clarity. Under artillery fire and the rumble of tanks, the refugees battled hunger, thirst, and unrelenting darkness to escape certain death from above. They lived like burrowing animals, emerging only at night to forage for food. It was one such excursion that put the Nazis on their trail, leading to an ambush and the execution of two of their party. As one survivor explains, the cave, synonymous with evil spirits and bad luck, was a sanctuary despite its trappings. The real monsters were on the outside.
It's 70 years after the ordeal, and the well of life-affirming testimonies of heroism and perseverance during the Holocaust still seems bottomless. To ask why another such film needs to be made is as absurd as asking why another formulaic action flick needs to be produced. And these true accounts deserve to be played out on the screen more than the mechanical fantasies of a Hollywood screenwriter, right?
No question that the material is fascinating, the interviews gripping, and the conclusion, which brings the subjects back to their former dwelling place, satisfying. But it's all achieved via fuzzy filters and heavily edited reenactments that shove it into a one-hour History Channel special mold. The personalities and facts exceed the packaging for the most part, but the cliched production values are jarring at first and a nuisance throughout.
The producer's hand is heavy in No Place on Earth, but it ultimately can't sink the inspiring tale of endurance. The small-screen air can't cut through the unrelenting gaze of the cave's survivors or diminish their monumental tale of endurance.
No Place on Earth **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Janet Tobias. With Chris Nicola, Saul Stermer, Sam Stermer, Sonia Dodyk. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 24 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes, brief violent images).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.
Contact Elizabeth Horkley at firstname.lastname@example.org.