Notes from Underground – ‘No Place on Earth’ a surprising Holocaust doc

Magnolia Pictures photos
Magnolia Pictures photos

What a mother!” says one of the survivors in the Holocaust documentary “No Place on Earth.” Part of a two-family group that survived underground for a year and a half until the Russians defeated the Nazis, this mother, along with uncles and brothers, were extraordinarily resilient. Pure chance also plays its part, which is one of the still scary musings to take from the history of the Holocaust.

Moving at a swift 80 minutes, “No Place on Earth” begins in modern times with Chris Nicola, an amateur spelunker and New Yorker, traveling to the Ukraine to search for his Eastern Orthodox heritage and take in some of the world’s largest gypsum caves. Inside these deep, deep caves accessible through tiny crevices and crawl spaces he finds traces of human habitation from decades, but not centuries, past: pieces of metal, shoes, names written on walls. Nobody in these backwater villages wants to talk, but he soon hears rumors of the “Jews in the cave” from World War II.

“I went looking for my family and found another,” is how he puts it.

Mr. Nicola’s story bookends the film: He brings the survivors — children during the Holocaust, now 80- and 90-year-olds — back from North America to the caves to revisit a traumatic and emotional part of their lives.

But for most of “No Place,” director Janet Tobias recreates the history through actors and narration by the survivors and excerpts from two memoirs, written long before Mr. Nicola ever started spelunking.

It’s an incredible tale. Knowing the Nazis were coming, bringing forced shipment to Jewish ghettos and concentration camps, the Stermer and Dodyk families hide in the cave. The first proves to be too shallow, and eventually the Nazis find them, but the second, a larger version of the same underground system, proves safe enough, as long as the family never venture out.

Nearly 40 people, mostly women and children, stayed in the cave for a year and a half. Only the men venture out for dangerous raids for supplies. They steal a millstone to make flour. They amazingly make a sled and then steal a horse during a nighttime raid.

Not surprisingly, the film is dark and murky. The Stermer and Dodyk families never see the sun, and neither do we. The re-enactments are shot by gaslamp and moonlight. Even the contemporary interviews are shot with very low-key, warm light, so as not to disturb the mood. This is a story to be told at night, anyway. When the survivors do make it out, audiences may be just as blinded by the light as they are.

Sometimes, because of the amount of people in the tale, and the fact that those telling the story were not old enough to be active in the narrative, it’s hard to keep a hold of the story. Several of the children disobey the strict rules over food rationing, but it’s not clear who disobeyed, or if the punishment was served. Nobody seems to have gone crazy, living in darkness for nearly two years. What did they do all day? How does the brain cope? These are questions that remain unasked. But they survived and flourished, and with humor intact. That’s their victory against evil.

‘No Place on Earth’
* * *
Length: 83 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violent images
Playing at: Plaza de Oro

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