In the grotesque chronicles of survivor ironies, this tale of Ukrainian Jews who hid from Nazis in basalt caves and unintentionally set an underground-dwelling record contains one of the more horrific yet subtly telling psychological twists I’ve ever heard. One of the survivors, who was a child at the time her family lived beneath the ground for more than a year, explains that she used to think darkly on the horrible supernatural creatures that lived in caverns. Now looking back, the caves (where they lived for so long that they forgot what the sun looked like, barely subsisting on stolen food and drops of water) seemed like a comforting home when revisited half a century later. Monsters, she realized, roamed the Earth above.
No Place on Earth is actually told from the point of view of an amateur spelunker from Brooklyn, who, after the break up of the Soviet Union, got access to the basalt caves — which he asserts were legendary — and discovered the relics (buttons and cups) of the families who stayed there. After years of researching the incident, he accidentally contacts the now-Americanized survivors and brings them back to the unlikely home and haven of their past. That aspect of the documentary is quite moving, as you can imagine.
The first two-thirds of the film, however, are split between on-camera testimonies and a rather unfortunate attempt to historically re-create the period. It isn’t sloppy or unprofessional, but there is an underlying sense of undermining, so to speak, the gripping tale of day-to-day survival. To be fair, one of the more dismaying and unforgettable scenes takes place in a reenactment when a duo of Ukrainian police catch the family and make them lie down and tell them they will pretend to shoot. The upshot of that event, like the parable of the cave and its monsters, is one of the reasons we watch and learn from survivors’ stories. We need to locate what is potentially monstrous within, as well as where our spirit for endurance is kept alive, and movies like No Place on Earth help.