With so many decades devoted to studying the Holocaust, it’s almost hard to imagine there are stories left to relate. But historians keep making discoveries, as demonstrated by the recent revelation that the Nazis’ network of concentration camps and work sites was far more extensive than previously thought, and there are as many harrowing tales of survival as there are survivors to tell them.
First, though, someone has to ask. The story quite literally unearthed in Janet Tobias’ documentary No Place On Earth begins with amateur spelunker Chris Nicola, who decided to plumb a series of caves near his ancestral home in western Ukraine. While exploring them, he came across evidence of human habitation, and queried the local villagers as to who might have left it behind. “Maybe some Jews,” they told him. It’s not surprising (nor is it excusable) that the villagers choose not to remember, since as much as it is the story of two Jewish extended families escaping capture, it is the story of the locals who made them hide. During one outing aboveground, they spied a villager watching them, and after some discussion, agreed to let him leave unharmed. Not long after, shovelfuls of dirt came pouring into the cave’s entrance, as the man they let live tried to bury them alive.
No Place On Earth mixes present-day interviews with re-enactments that illustrate the speakers’ words without adding much to them. Given the subjects’ age and the fact that they’re not native English speakers, their accounts can be garbled or difficult to follow, but rather than clarify matters, the staged footage adds another layer of confusion. There are questions that will always remain unanswered, but the film doesn’t restrict its ambiguities to the irresolvable. The re-enactments also turn Tobias’ subjects into narrators rather than protagonists, displacing the emotional weight of the film onto stand-ins. But the story is remarkable enough not to require enhancement.
Given that No Place On Earth is presented as an untold story, it’s a shock to reach the end credits and learn that it’s based in part on a pair of memoirs (one of which, to be fair, was published in an edition of 500 copies). This story isn’t untold, just largely unknown. It’s a minor point, perhaps, but a sticky one, a needless elision that blurs the all-important question of how memories, and history, must be recounted to endure. One telling is not enough.