Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Holocaust underground in Janet Tobias' spelunker special, NO PLACE ON EARTH plus a quick Q&A with the filmmaker

Just when you imagine that you must have seen it all -- having viewed over the past few years twenty, thirty, fifty or more films (documentaries and narratives) about the Holocaust and what those Jews who survived had to do in order to manage this -- here comes one of the most surprising and amazing stories of survival to yet come out of World War II. In NO PLACE ON EARTH, producer
/director Janet Tobias recounts the tale of a group of men, women and children who went into hiding in the safest place they could find, and in the process endured the longest uninterrupted underground survival in recorded human history.

Ms Tobias, shown at left, begins by letting us know how all this was uncovered, as the few people remaining alive who underwent the experience were not out there on the front lines shouting about it. Instead, it fell to British-born, U.S.-raised fellow named Chris Nicola, shown below, who explores caves in his spare time, to come across, while spelunking in the Ukraine, objects (such as the key shown further below) found deep in the caves that indicated the presence of human beings that had perhaps lived there.

Further investigation uncovered rumors, which led eventually to verification and the discovery of the remaining survivors, now living far from their original home in the Ukraine. Once found, these survivors tell their story -- and what a tale it is -- as we are whisked back in time to the 1940s.

It is fortunate, I think, that this story is such a good one because the construction of it, as given us via the film, leaves something to be desired. Ms Tobias has chosen to use re-enactments throughout the movie, so many and at such length that eventually, one wonders why this was not made as a narrative film. Agnieszka Holland managed it marvelously with her last year's "Oscar"-nominated narrative-based-on-fact, In Darkness. (TrustMovies and the filmmaker talk about this is the Q&A that follows this review, and Ms Tobias's reasoning does indeed make sense.)

The actors used to portray the real characters are fine -- no problem there (that Katalin Lábán, above, as Esther Stermer) -- and the recreations are believable, as well. (These are so much better than those recreations seen in last year's documentary Orchestra of Exiles.) But there are simply so many of them, and they go on for so long that this particular hybrid combination of narrative and documentary seems, at best, off-balance.

Along the way, the film offers a story with everything from narrow escapes to betrayals and murder, even the necessity of finding yet another, deeper cave in which to live. Hearing the survivors recall this time now is moving indeed, and the documentary builds to a very effective climax and denouement in which viewers will be greatly touched, as the survivors' grandchildren see the caves and learn firsthand how their elders lived.

"We were in the right place at the right moment, and that was our luck," one of them surmises. But Mr. Nicola insists on another view: "These were amateurs," he tells us, "who turned themselves into world-class cavers." And once again we learn that when, at the end of the war, the cave dwellers appeared in their town once again, not a single person came out to greet them. Only a dog appeared, who remembered them. Little wonder surviving Jews all over eastern and western Europe, Russia and the Ukraine could not, would not remain in a place they had once called home, but had to strike out for somewhere even remotely welcoming -- in this case the United States and Canada. You will not walk out of this movie unmoved.

No Place on Earth, a rare documentary release from Magnolia Pictures and running 84 minutes, opens this Friday, April 5, in New York City at the Angelika and Elinor Bunin Munroe film centers. The following week it opens in California and elsewhere, and then further across the country in the weeks to come. You can see all playdates, cities and theaters by clicking here.


We spoke with filmmaker Janet Tobias by telephone, and below is what we covered, with TrustMovies appearing in boldface and Ms Tobias in standard type.

There is so much re-enactment used in the movie that I began to wonder why you didn’t decide to do a narrative film instead? Does narrative film take many more resources than documentary?

I thought it was impossible for people to imagine the world of the cave and the underground and these circumstances without using drama. The story itself – a record-breaking 511 days total underground, with 344 uninterrupted days for women, children and older men – was so dramatic and difficult to imagine by only using the the narrators' words, so in order to have people really experience that it became clear that we had to use some real drama in the film. 

I actually did originally think of making it into a narrative film. You quickly think about that when you’re confronted with the caves and the situation and all the drama. But when you do the interviews with the Stermers and talk with Chris Nicola, you realize, well, this is the last time we will ever hear from the people who were eye witnesses to these events of the Holocaust. When people first started taking testimony, some 20 years ago, you could say then, Well, we don’t have MUCH more time. But now we have NO time. This is the last time we’ll be able to do this. So I thought, we want to take the spine of their great story-telling used as drama but also to let people see them see these wonderful witnesses while we can, while they are still with us.

This is how I ended up with both drama and documentary.  We tried to do this with a lot of thought because this is the best way to both honor what we hear and the real people who actually experienced the events. This combination also seemed the right way to give audiences an experience of the claustrophobia of the caves, the darkness.  It is so easy for so many of us not to be able make this leap that they made. And remember, these people were then mostly only children, teenagers and young adults. 

There is no credit for writing?  In the re-enactments, I seem to remember some dialog. Or was this my imagination and it was narration over the re-enactments?

No. You're right. There was dialog. Basically the credit for writing is mine and a man Paul Laikin. We were the two writers. What you hear through the reenactments and drama are the actual words of two people: Esther Sturmer and her nephew Sol Wexler. In certain cases, we adjusted the grammar and edited things so that they would flow more easily. It is basically their experience, however: the mother of the family, Esther, and then her nephew Sol Wexler, whose mother and brother were killed after the experience of the first cave. Sol then wrote a letter to his father, who had managed to get out and go to the USA, in which he explained all that had happened. And this was taken from that letter.

This is such an incredible story, really, and what they accomplished is so amazing and heartbreaking. So you need the drama, you need the immersive expeience that the film gives. What they did is also a great feat of adventure/survival. The pace of the film needed to be that feat of adventure/survival. These people were masters of their own fate They did that by acting. The were not just living in their head but with amazing physical capabilities: Making a sleigh. Lifting a huge grindstone. We wanted viewers to have that experience. 

Did you see the film In Darkness?

Yes, I did. And the big difference here is that the Sturmers did not have any main protector, as did the Jews in In Darkness. They had to do it all themselves. They did, and as much as you could during that time, they controlled their own universe. When they came into the cave, what was normally have meant darkness and nightmare was reversed. The caves became the place of safety, while the real evil was outside. 

What do you have planned next?

I am working on one documentary and one drama.  The doc has to do with The World Memory Games, about doing incredible things with memory and memorization. This is an incredible Spellbound-like and fascinating story about how memory works and how we remember. And about the event itself.

I am also working on a narrative drama about the oil industry and one of the richest oil fields back in the 1920s. This is one of the early great investigations that came about when people started murdering people for the oil. 

Do you have names for these projects?

Not yet. Both are still in progress. It took us awhile to even come up with the name of this current documentary – which comes from a line in Esther’s book.

Janet: Thanks so much for your movie and for your time today.

And thank you for caring so much about movies!

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