The new documentary No Place on Earth
attempts to take viewers back in time to the dark days of the second world war, when Nazis were pursuing Jews, peril was everywhere, and still no one had any real notion of just how horrifying the truth really was.
Through the use of full-on detailed re-enactments, first time feature film director Janet Tobias attempts to lucidly display the true-life plight of five Ukrainian families that hid in a massive underground cave for well over a year, unable to ever see the sun. Through the bookending exposition offered by Chris Nicola, the expert explorer who recently discovered proof of 20th century human activity in the cave, the unthinkable conditions these people so valiantly toiled in is clearly communicated.
All the more tragic, then, is that as cinema, No Place on Earth falls almost completely flat. The true story is a great one, one hundred percent worthy of telling. But it's the film's nature of the telling that bungles the experience. (This verdict being in full compliance with "Ebert's Law," that it's not what a film is about, but how it is about it.) The spirited and personable Nicola is introduced, then introduces us to the cave and the mystery surrounding it and how he cracked it, and then is left behind as the remaining survivors of the ordeal (many of whom are geriatric) are heard from at length in "talking head" style interviews. Polished re-enactment footage (of costumed actors never speaking, always narrated over), too glossy to pass for faux-authentic and too dialed down to ever be truly engrossing on its own, serves as the b-roll.
The entire endeavor is fueled by the ticking-clock reality of getting this story told by the survivors in their own voices, the idea being that nothing would be more powerful than firsthand recollection. No Place of Earth unfortunately proves that notion wrong, especially when compared to Agnieszka Holland's similarly themed narrative film from 2011, In Darkness. Holland's film is the true story of a group of Jews hiding in the sewers and tunnels beneath their Polish city, Lvov. Thanks to strong performances, decent direction, and precise production value, the darkness in Holland's is palpable. In Tobias', it's visibly staged, and lit for television. In Darkness sticks in the memory as an experience, whereas No Place on Earth merely feels like history.
It should come as no surprise then, that the first logo at the very front of the film is the giant beveled golden letter H of The History Channel. Perhaps deemed too lavish or significant for television, yet too scattershot to be a bona fide movie, No Place on Earth lives up to its name most adequately when trying to figure out the medium it's best suited for. The pay-off, however, does come when the aged survivors revisit the cave (the wartime tale being a long ago life experience many have rarely spoken of) for the first time since the end of the war, when they were able to finally return to day-lit civilization. But the getting there is a stale trudge, like watching a stalagmite form.
No Place on Earth, with its over-reliance on re-enactment, is a documentary that violates the basic rules of the form (to document reality), something unfortunately becoming more and common all the time. While I'm glad to know the details of this heretofore untold story of harrowing survival against the Nazis, I still would've been disappointed to pay to have seen this glorified TV special on the big screen. Wait for the inevitable History Channel airing.
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