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TORONTO — Let those who think they’ve heard every inspiring tale of Holocaust survival have a talk with Chris Nicola. His discovery of a cave where dozens of Jews waited out the Nazis is the subject of Janet Tobias‘s No Place on Earth, which not only uncovers their story but finds a handful of them still left to tell it. The astounding tale has strong arthouse appeal and looks like a natural for feature adaptation.
Nicola was spelunking in a 77 mile-long Ukrainian cave in 1993 when he discovered stoves, buttons, and shoes that were clearly left by people who had lived there. Fascinated, he began to ask locals for an explanation. “Maybe some Jews lived there” was the most he could get.
Almost a decade of searching later, the New Yorker got a tip leading to a man in the Bronx who, with his extended family, had lived underground for 511 days starting in 1942. Through interviews and the diaries of a remarkable woman named Esther Stermer, he and Tobias have pieced together the history of the 38 people who lived there.
The environment of these caves is essential to the film’s appeal, so while Tobias spends plenty of time with her elderly survivors (shooting them, cave-style, with a single light source in front of a black backdrop) she also echoes their memories with plentiful reenactment footage — actors scrambling through narrow gaps, digging to establish escape routes, and marveling at the cathedral-sized chambers they occasionally discover.
The film’s narrative is episodic, focusing on last-ditch missions to find food above ground and on a few dramatic moments — the most gripping being the day when German soldiers showed up in the cave. As they were marched out to what they assumed would be immediate execution, some were able to slip down darkened passageways, using their familiarity with the labyrinth to vanish.
Tobias leaves these stories occasionally to recount Nicola’s investigation; at the film’s close, he leads a group including four survivors back to the cave where, as he puts it, a group ranging in age from two to 76 did things that modern adventurers would find unthinkable. As we see a 91 year-old watch his granddaughter descend into the hole in the ground that saved his life, it’s hard not to wonder how this all remained private family lore for six decades.
Production Companies: Sierra Tango Productions, A List Films
Director: Janet Tobias
Screenwriter: Paul Laikin, Janet Tobias
Producers: Janet Tobias, Rafael Marmor, Paul Laikin, Nadav Schirman, Susan Barnett
Executive producers: J. Flint Davis, David McKillop, Timm Oberwelland, Katja Zink, Jeff Field, Susan Werbe, Molly Thompson
Directors of photography: Sean Kirby, Edu Grau, Peter Simonite, César Charlone
Music: John Piscitello
Editors: Claus Wehlisch, Alexander Berner, Deirdre Slevin
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
PG, 82 minutes