Sunday, May 19, 2013

No Place On Earth (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

No Place on Earth

"No Place on Earth" tells the anxious true story  of families in World War II escaping persecution from the Nazis. Janet Tobias (of PBS' Frontline) directs this excellent and poignant documentary, detailing The Stermer, The Wexler and The Dodyk families and what they went through enduring over 500 days in a cave, deep in Western Ukraine.

NYPD officer Chris Nicola starts the story off in a folksy amiable tone with his jovial, curmudgeonly New York accent that could be taken straight from actor Dennis Franz in NYPD Blue. Nicola says that an unforeseen discovery happened to him during a mission to reconnect with his Orthodox Ukrainian roots in 1993, after the fall of The USSR. During his trip to the area, he became fascinated by  two caves known as the Verteba and The Priest's Grotto. After a cursory first trip, he discovered pieces of a shoe and several buttons. Nicola became transfixed. He tells of prehistoric caves being inhabited by dinosaurs or men. But he says with dramatic apprehension, that this was not ancient history, but "living history". This part of the film is reminiscent of Herzog's wonderful "Cave of Forgotten Dreams". We see ghostly pink and gray stalactites enclosing a handful of splintered buttons like gems from a haunted and melancholy planet. Nicola's narration is part urban tough guy and part Rod Serling. At the start, it might seem that this is the stuff of an O. Henry story and it certainly is as surprising. Nicola is driven to find out more and begins to question the surrounding inhabitants.

"Maybe some Jews lived there," one lady tells Nicola.

And so begins an odyssey that we can now only wish had been fiction.

Through determination and more than a hint of chance, Nicola happens upon a newspaper article about a cave survivor during The Holocaust. As it turns out, the man in question lived only blocks from Officer Nicola in New York City.

Armed by this meeting, Nicola is able to retrace some vital long ago, but very real steps about what happened.

The details are related in equal parts first hand accounts and compelling  reenactments. There is the fiesty and resourceful Sam Stermer at almost ninety who is as engaging and self deprecating as any Ray Bradbury protagonist. He speaks of his mother challenging the policemen when they tried to haul them away. "What are you afraid of?" His mother, Esther reportedly asked, "That The Fuhrer will lose the war because we live here?"

Stermer admits that he would not be alive if he did not have the kind of mother that he was fortunate to have.

"What a mother," Stermer exclaims in a chant of wistful magic. "What a mother..."

There is also Sonia Stermer who is just as taken aback by the charm of her survival. Like Sam, she has a verve, an energy and a matter of fact wonder that is as marvelous to see as it is admirable.

The Stermer family escapes trial upon trial, all in the clap of a second and it is  easy to believe that there is some cliffhanger sorcery or angelic happenstance involved in their survival.

"No Place on Earth" has a solid score full of suspense that perfectly mirrors the haunt of two particular, but unassuming caves. The ending specifically, with Sam Stermer being lowered into the cave after some sixty years, is not to be missed and could be a film within itself. Vertebra cave is a spiritual DNA backbone that holds these families together. The caves stand with a singular presence, impassive, yet curiously no less benevolent for---protective ramparts  of rock against The Third Reich.

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