‘No Place on Earth’ movie review


Sam Stermer and Saul Stermer inside Verteba Cave in NO PLACE ON EARTH, a Magnolia Pictures release. (Magnolia Pictures)
April 25, 2013

The documentary “No Place on Earth” doesn’t seem like it should work quite as well as it does. A History Channel production, the tale of Ukrainian Jews who survived in underground caves for 511 days while hiding from the Nazis during World War II is structured around lengthy, foreign-language reenactments of the events featuring costumed performers.

Why not just commit to the undeniably thrilling theatricality of the story and make a fictionalized dramatic feature? Instead, Emmy-winning documentarian Janet Tobias (“Life 360”) mixes dimly lit historical stagings with more traditional interviews with survivors. Narration by Chris Nicola, the American spelunker who accidentally found signs of habitation in the caves in 1993, opens the film.

It’s a surprisingly effective and moving way of doing things. The reason probably has less to do with the power of the acting, which is more than serviceable, than with the mind-boggling nature of the feat itself. Living in a cave for a month, let alone for a year and a half, seems almost unendurable.

Factor in the fugitives’ discovery by the Gestapo, and their subsequent relocation to a second cave after paying off the local police — who nevertheless shoot a couple of them — and you’ve got a real-life ad­ven­ture to rival any scripted drama.

It also helps that “No Place on Earth” pulls a “Schindler’s List” move at the end, bringing the actual survivors — who have been portrayed by actors throughout the film — back to visit the caves at the film’s conclusion. Like Spielberg’s fact-based drama, which ended with several of “Schindler’s Jews” placing stones on Oskar Schindler’s grave, “No Place on Earth” reunites the tormented with their savior.

In this case, it is not a person, but a hiding place. Or rather, as the name of the film suggests, the absence of place, in a world in which they suddenly were not welcome.

“No Place on Earth” stirs the emotions as we watch the survivors and their young descendants unearth and then rebury — almost literally — the memories they have kept hidden and the miracle that kept those memories alive.

PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains disturbing thematic material and brief violence.
84 minutes. There will be a Q&A with Nicola after the following showings: Saturday, 5:40 and 7:50 p.m.; Sunday, 11:10 a.m. and 1:20 p.m.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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