Wearing the worn conventions of yesteryear's television-grade documentaries, No Place on Earth is a remarkable story made almost unremarkable in the hands of lazy filmmaking. The doc opens with the discovery of a cave containing some not-so-ancient artifacts by talking head Chris Nicola, an American cave explorer who stumbled upon the objects while spelunking in Ukraine. For many years Nicola was unable to find an explanation for the finds, which couldn't have dated back more than several decades; its secrets weren't pre-history, but living history, in the words of Nicola.
The film then makes a few jarring cuts between Nicola's present-day anecdote about a dearth of local research sources and a dramatization of unidentified people living in a cave, complete with cryptic voiceover: “Here we are in the grotto, buried alive.” Within a matter of minutes, however, the film virtually forgets about Nicola and switches into reenactment mode, introducing two related Jewish Ukrainian families who had lived underground in the same cave Nicola had discovered. During the Holocaust, the 38 members of the Esthmer and Wexler families, led by matriarch Esther Stermer (whose fictionalized voiceover is an unexplained source of narration), fled their town of Korolowska into the countryside, finding safety only in two nearly uninhabitable caves, Verteba Cave and Priest's Grotto. They lived underground for 511 days, and survived the war.
The reenactment is aided not only by the fictional Esther, but by real interviews of the youngest survivors of the families: Saul and Sam Stermer, and Sonia and Sima Dodyk. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that while they're crucial in imparting the striking detail about their collective gruesome experience, the survivors are unable to tell their story on screen without the aid of dramatization—or at least, the film gives that impression, though the candor and spirit of the subjects makes it a questionable judgment. As a result, the viewer is subjected to the stale, soporific aesthetic of reenactments that has been bored into ubiquity by countless unimaginative documentarians. It's a specific style that doesn't require cinephilic knowledge to recognize; anyone who's ever owned a television will be familiar with the contrived visual signature of pre-1950s historical dramatizations: slight sepia tones, subdued staged acting, dreamy backlighting—the cinematic equivalent of boring history-book covers and postage stamps.
Certainly the story being told by the survivors is absolutely essential for the film's narrative, and some of the details provided by the survivors are poignant in revealing the extreme hardships endured by the families, including, for example, the kids' inability to stand sunlight in their eyes after countless uninterrupted months of cave-living. None of these moments feel more “real” or significant due to their dramatization though, and for the most part, the technique of reenactment feels more like a crutch than a useful visual aid. Equally disappointing, the film's shoddy narrative structuring virtually undermines Nicola's eventual discovery of the survivors many years later. The film abandons Nicola's story for much of the film only to bring it back up again after the entirety of the survivors' story has been told, a tough act to follow given its stranger-than-fiction qualities.
No Place on Earth closes with a present-day visit to the caves by the survivors and their grandchildren, a heartwarming conclusion given little time to provide any satisfying degree of reflection. One of the grandchildren explains, with a hint of sentimentality, that the cave was his first bedtime story, serving as a reminder that family oral storytelling can sometimes be more powerful than cinematic storytelling, especially in the case of prosaic documentation.