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No Place on Earth: An Interview with Janet Tobias

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Thursday, Apr 4, 2013
Kati Laban as Esther Stermer in NO PLACE ON EARTH, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Unlike other documentaries which tend to go for a grittier feel, Tobias’ movie is stunning because of how it takes advantage of a purely cinematic visual style and dramatic recreations.
cover art

No Place on Earth

Director: Janet Tobias
Cast: Chris Nicola, Saul Stermer, Sam Stermer, Sonia Dodyk, Sima Dodyk

(Magnolia Pictures; Stranger Than Fiction: 26 Mar 2013; 2012)

No Place on Earth tells a harrowing tale of how the human need for survival can overcome obstacles as seemingly insurmountable as living underground for over 500 days.


The movie, which opens in select theaters on April 5, tells the bittersweet story of two Jewish families who hid in a cave after WWII broke, where they would spend almost two years defying all logic and unearthing yet another reason why the Holocaust’s horrors might never cease to surprise us.


The film is unlike most documentaries you’ve seen, heck, it’s like few movies you’ve ever seen. With the help of worldwide known spelunker Christopher Nicola, director Janet Tobias cleverly crafts a film that’s as thrilling as it is moving, deftly combining the exciting conventions of an adventure movie, with the inescapable tragedy that marks all stories about the way in which the Jews were condemned to undergo misery under Hitler’s reign of terror. The movie opens in a cave, as we see Nicola set on what looks like it’ll be yet another of his famous explorations.
  
“Every cave I enter has a secret”, he declares with a sense of expectation, yet the secrets he uncovered in this Ukrainian cavern mystified him beyond words. Clothes, kitchen utensils, proof that people had inhabited this remote space of the planet…all of which led Nicola to embark in a quest that would have him trace the steps of two families, the Wexlers and the Stermers, as they crossed the Atlantic towards eventual salvation.


When the movie begins, you’d be fooled into thinking it’ll turn into a National Geographic showcase in which the explorer recounts his own experiences and in fact the iconic magazine ran an article about his discovery a few years ago. The opening sequence, with its evocations of Spielberg, sets a tone which will then drastically change as Tobias leads us into a recreation of how these people lived and survived in some of the dampest, darkest spaces in the planet.


Watching the movie, I was almost fooled into believing it would turn into something different and when I spoke to the director about this she revealed that she too saw an “adventure, survival story” in the project. Tobias, who has achieved recognition in journalism recounted how she shied away from the project at first because she thought everything had been said about the Holocaust. Why make another movie, when there are already so many works out there packing enough dramatic punches seemed to be what made her doubtful about entering this project. However “just listening to [the survivors] tell the story” she said, was enough to change her mind. “They’re people of action, they’re not too reflective by nature, they’re actors” who had to make drastic decisions in order to preserve their lives.


“Chris too was an actor, who acted in this environment” she continued, revealing how the spelunker and the survivors inspired her to make what would become her first feature length film. In the story she saw the best in humanity, the best in family and friendships, yet in order to make justice to this story she combined her vast journalistic knowledge with her until then unknown gifts as a filmmaker.


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Janet Tobias, director of NO PLACE ON EARTH.


“The documentary parts were easy for me” she revealed, “asking questions and being smart enough to listen to the answers, organize facts”. Tobias stages her interviews with the survivors in a setting that might as well be the very cave from their past, they are enveloped by darkness which forces the audience to devote its attention to their detailed accounts. “The new part with me was working with drama and I loved working with actors and talented children” she continued, also revealing that she was “smart enough to know I needed great cinematographers”.


Unlike other documentaries which tend to go for a grittier feel, Tobias’ movie is stunning because of how it takes advantage of a purely cinematic visual style. Her dramatic recreations are wonderful to behold and have all the power of a silent movie, especially since their story is narrated. Yet even for non-speaking parts, she knew she had to make justice to the power of the story and cast “well known stage actors”, including an actress she called “the Meryl Streep of Hungary”. There is a “rich acting tradition in Hungary, for being such a small country they have a really rich film culture” she added and you can see this in how her actors “which ranged from the well known to some who had never acted before”, all play their parts exceptionally.


The movie’s crew includes editors and cinematographers who have worked in movies like Cloud Atlas and Perfume. When asking her about her visual references for the movie, she explained “ I had admiration for the other directors but needed to do something different. We needed to do a hybrid between drama and documentary” and since the movie was also about the last remaining witnesses “we also needed a different visual landscape, to make people seem it fresh”. She found inspiration in films like Everything is Illuminated, “ which deals with the Holocaust and memory in a very interesting way” and in Warren Beatty’s epic Reds.


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Réka Gavaldi as Leiche Wexler, Norbert Gogan as Leo Wexler and Dániel Hegedus as Sol Wexler in NO PLACE ON EARTH.



Judging from the movie’s pacing and its surprising lack of sentimentality (there are no gratuitous moments like those found in movies like Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful) it’s almost unfathomable to conceive that this is her first film. Her strong hand as a director being felt in how everything is graciously modulated so that the audience is entertained and enlightened in equal manners. When I asked her if she’d been intimidated by the prospect of making a movie, she charmingly added that she wasn’t because “the important thing is the journey”.


I was also curious about her experience with Nicola and wanted to know about what he had told her about the caves. “He found a child’s shoe or a woman’s shoe and went ‘what on Earth is that doing in a cave?’” she explained, while she elaborated on how she was deeply shocked by the fact that these people had brought down an immense grinding stone to make flour, into a place that represents a spatial challenge for people with modern caving equipment.


The movie will most likely find itself in contention for myriad of nonfiction awards at the end of the year and Tobias explained that she isn’t in the least concerned with that because all you want is that the movie “gets out there and hope it affects people, but you do it because you love it. So, I never predict those things” she added. She told me a charming anecdote about having met Roland Joffé in Calcutta who told her that “if you don’t like it while you’re doing it, then there’s no point in doing any of it”. He told her that he never expected the Oscar success of The Killing Fields but that if he hadn’t loved the process of making a movie, he’d have stopped and never done things like The Mission.


No Place on Earth fortunately won’t be the last we hear from this extraordinary director. She’s currently working on two projects “one narrative and one documentary”. The documentary will focus on the World Memory Championship, where “regular people memorize a deck of cards in 27 seconds basically by going on memory journeys; a jog by a building that they lived in which they populate with funny, grotesque images”. She was attracted to this project for the way in which “our memory forms are bases of judgment experience and bases of going forward”.


Her drama centers on “the richest oil fields in America, which were located in Oklahoma and had Clark Gable and all those people wanting to make money go through them.” The “field was so wealthy everyone fought over it. First there were FBI investigations which showed how local authorities were in cahoots against other local groups. J Edgar Hoover thought it would be a good movie!” she added excitedly. Tobias, whose eloquence was fascinating beyond words continued “the people who owned the land were American Indian and became the wealthiest minority in the country due to an allotment”, which was the point at which I was completely sold on the movie.


caption

Chris Nicola in a cave in Georgia (USA) in NO PLACE ON EARTH.



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26 Mar 2013
Survivors of the caves recall efforts to maintain a sense of time and community, looking after children or feeling frightened as children, as well as the traumas of facing Nazi soldiers.
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