It’s been about a year since the theatrical release of Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness,” based on the true story of an extended family who hid from Nazis and their collaborators for 14 months in the sewers of Lvov. One-upping this story, at least from a survivalist standpoint, is “No Place on Earth,” a documentary/narrative hybrid about an extended family hiding in Ukrainian caves for over 17 months – the longest stretch of time for humans to live in caves since they first left them.
The story of the Sterner and Wexler families was uncovered by accident
The story of the Sterner and Wexler families was uncovered by accident. In 1993 a cave enthusiast living in New York City named Chris Nicola began licking his chops at the unseen-to-Western-eyes gypsum caves in the then-opening up Eastern Bloc. This gentile of Eastern European descent traveled to Ukraine and stumbled upon mundane artifacts that convinced him that people had been living down there. He began asking questions.
“No Place on Earth” doesn’t delve at all into Nicola’s family history, but one can sense that he was driven by something other than curiosity to learn who these cups, rags and abandoned toys belonged to. Eventually Nicola met Sol Wexler, who led him to the other survivors living in Montreal and New York.
The striking and never-to-be-underestimated will to live is shown in extraordinary detail, both in recreation footage and through talking head interviews. With no caving experience, the roughly thirty members are able to ration water, make food, stay clean and initiate an elaborate security system. There were problems.
Their first cave was discovered by the Germans. While some were able to stay hidden, the families were split up and arrested, though a local police chief spared most of them from executions. (Those whose faces would be recognized by locals, he shot in cold blood.) A second cave was safer, but more brutal. It had an almost impenetrable entrance, causing some in the group to fear they couldn’t even enter, and it was also more prone to terrifying cave-ins. A man would stand with an axe near the tiny hole where people would drop in. If they didn’t say the password, their legs would be chopped off as they dangled.
While the staged recreations are produced at a higher level than, say, the History Channel, “No Place on Earth”’s most memorable moments come from the first-person narrators. Usually with film the mantra is “show, don’t tell,” but hearing these voices describe how they observed Yom Kippur on day 323 of their hiding, or the difficulty in differentiating Soviet and German shelling, comes laden with an ineffable authenticity when they speak it. An old man with a lifetime of experience remembers the superhuman feats of matriarch Esther Stermer and interrupts himself to remark in awe, “wow, what a mother!”
The film may be called ‘No Place on Earth’ but this final sequence could just as well bear the title ‘No Tear Duct Not Gushing’
The film concludes with a victory lap of Nicola and the elderly survivors taking their grandkids to “their cave.” The film may be called “No Place on Earth” but this final sequence could just as well bear the title “No Tear Duct Not Gushing.”
While these stories were already saved for posterity (Esther Sterner’s autobiography is quoted from) they, like so many survivors stories, have languished in Holocaust academia, given small, one-time printings. This film, while hardly being a masterpiece of cinema, has more than its share of gripping moments and emotional revelations.
No Place on Earth opens in New York City on April 5. It rolls out in additional cities in the US and Canada through late May. Specific dates noted here.