As noted by New York spelunker Chris Nicola in Janet Tobias’s fascinating but frustrating documentary, “No Place on Earth,” throughout history people have believed that demons dwell in caves. But Holocaust survivor Esther Stermer, whose memoir is quoted extensively in the film, does not agree. The real demons are the ones on the surface, she says.
Tobias tries to combine their two stories — the first about a man who, in the course of exploring his own family roots, stumbles on evidence of another family’s incredible ordeal, the other about the courage and resolve of people determined to survive an invader’s barbarism and their neighbors’ treachery. Unfortunately, she fails to probe deep enough to confront the darker connections between the two.
She opens with Nicola’s story, and he relates how, in 1993, he took a trip to Ukraine to track down his Orthodox roots. The country had just separated from the former Soviet Union and he found the people wary and unwilling to answer his questions. So he passed the time by exploring the local Vertebra caves. There, like a Brooklyn-accented Werner Herzog, he describes his descent into the depths as his camera (in a re-creation) pierces the darkness to discover not prehistoric paintings, as in Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” but names scribbled on the walls and 20th-century artifacts such as buttons, cooking utensils, and fragments of a child’s shoe. It turns out to be “Cave of Remembered Nightmares.”
When he asks the locals about this, they are even more reticent, muttering something about “some Jews.” Though still curious, Nicola for the time being postpones his search, but is still determined to solve the mystery.
As it turns out, there was no mystery to be solved. Stermer’s memoir about her extended family’s 511-day ordeal hiding in the caves, “We Fought to Survive,” had been published in 1975. Without explanation, Tobias leaves Nicola still fumbling in the dark for answers, then cuts to the chase, relating the incredible story of survival. Told through reenactments, interviews with survivors, and readings from Stermer’s book and other memoirs of the participants, it includes incidents reminiscent of the most harrowing parts of “Schindler’s List.”
Some of the details reverberate with uniquely macabre horror. When five members of the group are captured, the Ukrainian police chief agrees to release them if he is given five corpses to take their place so he can fool the Nazi overseers. In another brush with disaster, a villager spots the refugees while foraging. They let him live, and he returns from town with a mob wielding picks and shovels. They seal up the cave entrance, hoping to bury the Jews alive.
In general, the Ukrainian civilians don’t come off well in this film. Though some courageously aid the fugitives, others are indifferent, and some collaborate with the Nazis in rounding up and murdering Jews. In the end the question lingers, did Nicola learn anything about his Ukrainian forebears? And why doesn’t Tobias tell us?