Magnolia Pictures // 2012 // 83 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // September 14th, 2013
An incredible true story of strength and survival.
Exploring caves can lead to highly interesting and important discoveries. Deep underground, valuable artifacts lie in perfect conditions for preservation, leading occasional to some amazing finds, whether those are the fossilized remains of ancient reptiles, the pottery of long-extinct tribes, or amazing cave art like the anthropological boon that Werner Herzog documented in his Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Once in a while, something completely unexpected is found and a great story is born, something like what we discover in No Place on Earth, a fascinating new documentary from Janet Tobias.
After exploring a number of caves, much of what one might see becomes somewhat commonplace. An arrowhead here, a drawing there, maybe a tooth over there; it's all kind of ho-hum. But what if, in remote caves where habitation seems impossible, one finds more modern items? Modern history in an ancient place like that is a real life anachronism.
That is precisely this situation that private investigator and cave enthusiast Chris Nicola found himself in when, in 1993, after the Soviet Union opened up, he was in the Ukraine looking around the gypsum caves there and made a very strange discovery. Buttons, fabric, women's shoes all littered the cave floor and, on the walls, lists of names. Clearly, people not only were in here, but lived here, and Nicola began seeking the answers to this mystery.
For ten years, he searched, surmising that it must have been Ukrainian Jews hiding from the Nazis and their bootlickers in local law enforcement. He could only leave it at that until a lead brought him to the descendants of Esther Stermer, the family's long-dead matriarch, when he realized a truth so incredible that the family kept the story secret for fear nobody would believe them. This truth, that Esther led her family and many others down into two caves over a nearly two year span, not only eluding authorities, but raising children and owning their own fate, becomes the subject of No Place on Earth, one of the best WWII documentaries I've watched in a very long time.
Tobias uses a three-pronged attack to spin this incredible thread. First, she presents the mystery of Chris Nicola (lucky he was a PI) who, with his supremely friendly style, relays how he found these people and shows the audience footage of his time in the caves. This gives the movie a sense of immediacy that is exciting and fun. Second, she conducts interviews with the surviving family members, whose impressive recall of the situation delivers the reality of their struggle first hand. Finally, she dramatizes certain parts of the narrative with the corresponding story playing over top. The meticulous detail and understated artistry of these reenactments is the final punch that drives the power of this story home.
In spite of what might seem like a structural leap with all of that going on, Tobias makes it all seem very simple. Interviews are conducted in front of hard black backgrounds with a single light on the subject; reenactments are detailed, yes, but dimly lit, quiet affairs; Nicola's footage is just fun underground exploration with an engaging mystery behind it. This winds up making No Place on Earth, a title which comes from the diary that Esther Stermer kept throughout the ordeal, a documentary that is both fun to watch and extremely interesting all at once. I defy anybody to be unimpressed with the willpower and endurance that these people showed under these extraordinary circumstances, to a level that most of us can never hope, nor ever want, to achieve. The story and the way Janet Tobias delivers it makes No Place on Earth one of the best documentaries I've watched in some time and I highly recommend it to any audience.
No Place on Earth comes from Magnolia Home Entertainment in a very decent Blu-ray release. The 1.78:1/1080p image is excellent throughout, with fantastic clarity throughout the frame and extremely deep black levels that maintain strong detail even in the darkest scenes. The 5/1 Master Audio sound track is less distinctive, but very good all the same. The dialog is sharp and clean and the music by John Piscitello sounds very good, but the rear channels only get used for the music and some minimal ambiance at times.
The extras mostly consist of additional interviews that could easily have made it into the film. Their subjects are their titles...
"The Stermers After the War"
"Korolowka Before the War"
"More About Life in the Cave"
"David Blitzer (Sima's Husband): His Holocaust Story"
"Harold Hochman (Sonia's Husband): His Holocaust Story"
"Chris Nicola Adventure Caving in Slovakia"
"Chris Nicola Adventure Caving in the USA"
Together, they run about 25 minutes and, though they might not be essential to the core story, they do add additional color to an already amazing tale. A photo gallery and a trailer round out the supplements.
No Place on Earth is an uncanny tale that has to be seen to be believed. Using the trifecta of interviews, reenactments, and cave exploration footage, Janet Tobias delivers a complete and beautiful portrait of survival and fortitude that doesn't come through fighting, but through waiting. Truly great material that is impeccably and compellingly told, this is a fantastic documentary that everybody should see.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Bonus Footage
* Official Site