Thursday, April 04, 2013

“No Place On Earth” – Movie Review



My movie class resumed this week with the documentary “No Place On Earth” .


During World War II, Jewish families escape the Nazis by hiding in Ukraine caves.


When New Yorker Chris Nicola takes a vacation from his work as a civil service employee, he enjoys pursuing his rather unusual hobby of many years – spelunking. In the early 1990’s, not too long after the collapse of The Soviet Union, he visited the Eastern European nation of Ukraine to traverse some caves which were believed to have been previously unexplored. While there, he discovered something that made him curious – various artifacts from long ago that suggested some people (including children) had occupied the cave, possibly for an extended period of time.

Almost immediately, Chris started investigating the history behind this, but ran into a major obstacle when he learned that people in the Ukraine didn’t exactly seem particularly inclined to want to discuss this matter very much. As it turned out, the Ukraine government apparently had its own anti-Semitic policies that were in effect independent of the Nazis’ goals to exterminate their Jewish population; in fact, the two governments had seemingly worked together quite closely throughout the war to turn in Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine. After many years of relentless detective work, Chris eventually came into contact with relatives of Jewish families that had emigrated from the Ukraine approximately around that very same time period.

It turns out that while these relatives’ ancestors had originally tried to leave the Ukraine at the time when the Nazis were attempting their stranglehold on Europe, they were thwarted by soldiers who prevented them from exiting the country just as German occupation began. When Jewish families who sought to evade the Nazis were hidden by local villagers, those who offered sanctuary were threatened by German soldiers, informing them that their own lives would be at risk unless they surrendered their Jewish guests. Seeing the increased danger and unwilling to imperil their generous hosts, the Jewish families then set out to seek cover within the countryside caves, where they somehow managed to survive by living in them full time for a year and a half.


The major problem I had with “No Place On Earth” is the fact that the filmmakers tried to cram way too much information into this relatively short documentary (it clocks in at less than an hour and a half). It has something of a schizophrenic quality about it in the sense that at times, it seems as though it is going to be about this odyssey undertaken by Chris Nicola, but then winds up flip-flopping with the story about the Jewish families who spent well over a year living in a pair of caves in order to escape a worse fate in a Nazi Concentration Camp. Ultimately, the net result is that the viewer is left feeling somewhat frustrated by being forced to follow multiple narrative threads.

Another issue is that while this story is indeed remarkable, its recounting is somewhat muddled in that it is a combination of first-person interviews with the survivors and dramatic re-enactments supplemented with voice-over narrations. Regarding the interviews with some of the elderly survivors, a few of them can be a little bit difficult to understand because of heavy accents (there are no subtitles used at any point in the interview portions of this movie). Perhaps help may have come in the form of including some interviews with historians to provide a degree of context that would glue the pieces of the story together.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the documentary’s director, Janet Tobias and one of its stars, Chris Nicola. Tobias took great care in her use of music throughout “No Place On Earth” and she mentioned that the person who composed the soundtrack was actually a former software engineer who used to work at Google; as an early employee of that company, he was eventually fortunate enough to completely cash-out thanks to his stock options. Still a young man, he decided to follow a new career path writing music for films. Nicola related a story behind one of the scenes in the movie where the filmmakers take some of the survivors and their descendents to the actual caves that were inhabited during the war; he said that one night, he was able to sneak some of them inside by bribing the guards with vodka.


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