83 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
There’s a hell of a story at the heart of “No Place On Earth.” But I do wish it had been better told.
The facts are pretty amazing. During World War II several Ukrainian Jewish families took shelter from the Nazis in an immense gypsum cave system. After more than a year underground 38 men, women and children emerged to find that the Germans had retreated in the face of the Red Army.
While the men would periodically venture out in search of food and fuel, the women and children remained hidden, thus setting a world record for days spent underground. One girl – now an octogenarian – had forgotten what sunlight was like.
Janet Tobias’ documentary allows these now-elderly individuals to tell their own stories…and that’s both good and bad.
Good because it’s their story, after all. Bad because, well, the film misses all sorts of opportunities for real dramatic oomph. It lacks an emotional spine.
What must it have been like to grow up in darkness? To fear that the next pair of feet sliding down the narrow entrance tunnel belonged to a Gestapo officer?
Surprisingly, Tobias avoids answering those very human questions. We’re expected, I guess, to use our imaginations.
Old-fashioned TV documentary-style narration has fallen out of favor, but this is an instance where it could have been successfully used to pull the various pieces of the story together.
Tobias fleshes out the talking-head interviews with docudrama-recreations of life underground. These have been very well mounted – the costuming, sets and acting are of feature quality – but they’ve been shot so darkly that half the time you don’t know what’s going on. Perhaps that’s the idea. But in many ways “No Place on Earth” feels not like a movie without a soundtrack but like a soundtrack without a movie.
There’s a framing device sandwiching the main portion of the film. At the outset New York investigator and amateur cave explorer Chris Nicola recalls visiting the Ukrainian caves shortly after the fall of Communism and stumbling across numerous signs of long human habitation – pieces of shoes, cooking equipment, medicine bottles. Asking around he was told that they might have been left by Jews, but nobody knew what happened to them.
It took a decade of sleuthing before Nicola discovered that one of the survivors now lived just a few miles away from him in NYC.
At the end of the film Nicola takes two of the survivors – the oldest is 91 – into the cave they once called home. Along for the journey are two of their grandchildren…a genuinely touching example of getting down with your family’s roots. I wish the rest of the film had been as affecting as the story it tells.
| Robert W. Butler