Sam Stermer and Saul Stermer inside Verteba Cave in "No Place on Earth,"… (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures )
Add one more extraordinary survival tale to the canon of Holocaust documentaries: "No Place on Earth." Director Janet Tobias uses a successful mix of storytelling methods as she details the strands of this remarkable, harrowing chapter.
For 511 days, between 1943 and 1944, 38 members of two related Jewish families — the Stermers and the Wexlers — eluded the Nazis by living underground in two caves in western Ukraine, the fairly accessible Verteba followed by the far deeper Priest's Grotto. There were many close calls, of course, and a sacrificial mother-son death at the hands of a Ukrainian policeman, but the remaining cave dwellers stayed alive until the war's end with limited resources and infinite patience, strength and ingenuity.
Tobias chronicles this nearly 18-month endurance test via effective dramatic re-creations plus rich interviews with ordeal survivors Saul Stermer, now 92, his younger brother Sam, and their nieces, Sima and Sonia Dodyk. Spoken passages from matriarch Esther Stermer's memoir "We Fight to Survive" and her nephew Sol Wexler's writings punctuate the retelling.
Bookending the film is the account of Chris Nicola, a New York-based spelunker who unearthed this story while researching his own family's Ukrainian roots in 1993. His complex 2010 return to the original caves with the Stermer brothers, the Dodyk sisters and two Stermer grandchildren proves hugely moving and memorable — for them and for us.
"No Place on Earth." MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violent images. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes. At the Landmark, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino; Regal's Westpark 8, Irvine.
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