Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
No Place on Earth: Truly Going Underground
think of caving as the stuff of National
Geographic, but for thirty-eight Jewish Ukrainians, it was rather more
serious. It was a matter of life, not
death. For eighteen months they evaded the
German National Socialists by hiding deep in two narrow, naturally-formed caverns. Decades later, the survivors tell their story
in Janet Tobias’s documentary, No Place
on Earth (trailer
opens this Friday in New York.
it often happens, it was a New Yorker who brought this story to light. British-born Bronx resident Chris Nicola is
an experienced caver who originally traveled to the post-Soviet Ukrainian in
search of his roots. While exploring a
cave, he discovered a series of artifacts clearly suggesting families had once
lived there. Not surprisingly, the
locals were not forthcoming with information.
Nonetheless, after years of sleuthing, he finally tracked down the
Stermers and the Dodyks. They all credit
their initial survival to the iron-will of matriarch Esther Stermer as well as
the resourceful foraging of the elder Stermer brothers, Nissel and Saul.
Tobias read about Nicola’s expeditions and investigation (in Nat Geo, of course), she recognized the
makings of a good documentary.
Fortunately, the production fell into place in time to record the
elderly Stermer and Dodyk survivors returning to the caves that once sheltered
them, bringing along their children and grandchildren, with Nicola to serve as
blends dramatic re-enactments, talking head interviews, and her on-the-scene
footage of the families’ underground homecoming (not completely seamlessly, but
functionally enough). At times, it has
the feel of a cable special (perhaps with good reason, considering it is a co-production
of History Films), but there is no denying the power of their story. At one point during their subterranean
reunion they cut the lights to fully recreate the experience of living
there. Coincidentally, at this point the
video went out at the screening I attended, yet it took a roomful of jaded film
critics several minutes to realize it was supposed to be dark, but not that
dark. One could certainly say we were
caught up in the moment. (Eventually,
the problem was fixed and the film rewound to the point in question).
Stermer and Dodyk family members are still very sharp interview subjects and
Nicola is a particularly charismatic screen presence. As a result, Tobias captures a vivid sense of
her subjects’ personalities and their lives in the caves, the quality of which
was quite high they repeatedly emphasize, because it was free.
Indeed, this is not the usual survival story often
depicted on-film, chronicling the efforts of a good Christian protector. The Stermers and Dodyk’s relied almost
entirely on themselves. There is a lot
to learn from their inspiring stories.
Respectfully recommended for family and student viewing, No Place on Earth opens this Friday
(4/5) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Elinor Bunin
Munroe Film Center uptown.