Caving In, by David Bax
Of the many narrators we hear in Janet Tobias’ No Place on Earth, the first is Chris Nicola, a researcher and caving enthusiast whose interest in a specific set of caves in Ukraine uncovered the story the film endeavors to tell. With his thick New York accent and disarmingly affable, sappy and goofy demeanor, Nicola is not someone you would expect to narrate a documentary. Yet the exact reasons why he’s not an ideal voiceover artist are what make him ideal for this film, the power and charm of which come from an equally unassuming standpoint.
During the Second World War, Western Ukraine was one of the worst possible places to be Jewish. 1.5 million Jews were killed in this area alone. No Place on Earth tells the story of five families – 38 people – who avoided the fate that befell so many others by doing the unthinkable. They lived far under the ground for over 500 days.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Nicola is an endearing sort of awkwardness. We see him sit weirdly close to people he’s talking to. We see him jubilant and gregarious toward people he’s never met before. What is at first odd, though, quickly becomes likable. Tobias’ film follows a similar path. Its overly earnest dramatizations of the events described by the interviewees as well as the dramatically low-key, shadowy lighting of the interviews themselves soon transition from a bother to a pleasure when it becomes clear that they are being carried out with a complete lack of pretension. It helps that the wordless performances in these recreations are of a higher caliber than would be expected from such a conceit.
No Place on Earth contains the details of some harrowing, even sickening occurrences, many of which detail human nature at its lowest. Yet, instead of lingering on the grim brutality of the times, every moment – thanks to the interviews with survivors – is informed by the appreciation of the best of humanity. Kindness, fraternity, perseverance, courage and all the best things of which people are capable got them through the year and a half they spent in the caves as well as every decade since.
Trite as it may be, the notion that surviving through such a horribly trying time gave these men and women and boys and girls a greater appreciation of life is convincingly communicated. There are tears in the telling of the tale but when one of the subjects, now in his nineties, says, “No one had a brother like I had; there were no brothers like my brother,” the impact is indescribably touching.
At the end of the film, Nicola and Tobias bring some of the survivors – now residents of Montreal and New York City – back to Ukraine and to the caves. This sequence is, like Nicola and the others, undeniably sentimental. It’s also deeply moving and well-earned.